Living with social anxiety disorder can mean that even the most casual social interactions leave you trembling, dizzy, and afraid of criticism or rejection.
Severe social anxiety can affect your day-to-day life by making it difficult to engage in commonplace activities, such as:
- talking with co-workers
- buying groceries
- eating in public
- attending classes at school
- going on dates
Managing social anxiety usually isn’t as simple as tossing yourself into a crowd, but it’s still an entirely achievable goal.
Looking for ways to feel more comfortable in social situations and interact with others more easily? These 9 strategies offer a place to begin.
Despite what some people might suggest, social anxiety goes beyond shyness, or feeling uneasy and nervous around new people. Social anxiety is a mental health condition, and it’s not always possible to work through symptoms yourself.
You can do a lot on your own to manage the anxiety and distress you experience, but getting professional support is always a good place to start.
A trained mental health professional can:
- offer more insight on the difference between social anxiety and shyness
- help you identify social anxiety triggers
- teach helpful coping strategies, social skills, and relaxation techniques
- offer guidance with challenging and replacing or reframing negative thoughts
Therapy also offers a safe environment to practice navigating anxiety-provoking situations through graduated exposure, one potential treatment for social anxiety.
Your therapist might recommend group therapy or support groups, which give you the chance to practice social skills and interact with other people also coping with social anxiety.
A therapist can also refer you to a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication for social anxiety. Medication can provide some relief from severe symptoms, making it easier to start working through them in therapy.
Social anxiety doesn’t show up in the same way for everyone.
You might feel anxious about any situation where you worry about others judging you, from ordering food at a restaurant to leaving for the restroom during a class lecture. On the other hand, you could feel mostly fine simply being around others — as long as they don’t expect you to share your thoughts or speak up.
Pinpointing why and when you feel most anxious can help you take the first steps toward finding solutions to power through those feelings.
Tip: Start by listing situations that cause the most discomfort, the ones you feel utterly unable to face. These might include:
- interviewing for a new job
- meeting with a professor to ask for help
- introducing yourself to someone you’re attracted to
Noting the symptoms you usually experience can also help you deal with them more effectively:
- Feel lightheaded and dizzy? Try slowing your breathing
- Worry everyone’s noticing your shaking hands or pounding heart? A grounding technique can help you refocus and stay in the present.
Chances are, you spend a lot of time thinking about the potential negative outcomes of those social situations you just listed.
You might worry about:
- accidentally saying something rude or offensive
- calling someone by the wrong name
- tripping or spilling something on yourself
- laughing, sneezing, or coughing at the wrong time
- getting sick in front of other people
These things do happen on occasion, and they certainly can cause some short-term discomfort. It can feel frightening to imagine yourself in a similarly awkward situation, but try to keep things in perspective.
Even if you do make a small social blunder, that doesn’t mean other people will look down on you. In fact, they might remember a time when they found themselves in a similar position and offer empathy and compassion instead. Bonding over past awkward experiences could even help you make a new friend.
When you begin to feel overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, try challenging and replacing them with more helpful ones through a technique called realistic thinking. You can try this by asking yourself some basic questions about the scenario that’s worrying you and providing honest, balanced answers.
An exercise in realistic thinking
Say you’ve just started a new job, and your co-workers have invited you to their monthly happy hour. You’d like to get to know them better, but you feel terrified that you might say or do something that affects their opinion of you. Consider these questions and how you might answer them:
- What makes me believe I’ll say something embarrassing? I did once before, and people laughed.
- How many times have I spent time with other people and not said anything embarrassing? More than I can count.
- What’s the worst that could happen? Why am I so afraid of this? I want them to like me, not think I’m weird or socially awkward.
- Have you ever heard someone say something silly or awkward in public? How did you respond? I felt bad for them, but they laughed it off and no one seemed to care.
- What if you responded in the same way? They’d probably think I’m a good sport.
- What would you tell a friend worrying about the same thing? People will like you or they won’t. Making a mistake or joke that falls flat probably won’t affect their opinion overall.
Understanding the spotlight effect — the tendency to think others notice your mistakes more than they actually do — can also go a long way toward easing feelings of social anxiety.
You might believe everyone’s staring at you after an awkward faux pas, but most people probably didn’t even notice. Those who did? They’ll probably forget what happened pretty quickly.
When it comes to managing social anxiety, it’s just fine to start with little changes. You don’t have to volunteer to lead a meeting or strike up a conversation with everyone you meet.
A few ideas to try:
- At the store, skip the self-checkout and challenge yourself to make small talk with the cashier instead.
- Raise your hand in class to ask a question.
- Compliment a classmate’s or co-worker’s outfit.
- Host a small gathering for close friends and loved ones — socializing in your own space can help you feel more comfortable.
Some people also find it helpful to rename anxious feelings.
Instead of thinking “I feel so nervous about tonight,” try thinking “I’m so excited to see what people are like outside of work!” instead.
All those negative outcomes you worry about? Practicing ways to get through them ahead of time can help you feel more prepared to handle them if they come up during an interaction.
Ask a trusted friend or family member to role-play some everyday conversations with you.
A few scenarios:
- You’re searching for an item at the drugstore and have to explain what you’re looking for to the clerk.
- You pronounce the name of your friend’s date wrong and they correct you.
- Your boss asks a question during a work meeting and you give the wrong answer.
- You trip and fall in front of a large crowd of people.
Tip: To get more familiar with best- and worst-case outcomes, ask your conversation partner to offer different positive, negative, or neutral reactions.
Like general anxiety, social anxiety can involve overwhelming and uncomfortable physical symptoms, including:
- a pounding heart
- difficulty breathing
- an upset stomach
Relaxation exercises can help calm these physical reactions, making it easier to manage worry, fear, and the other emotional symptoms you experience.
- Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of 4 seconds.
- Hold the breath for 7 seconds.
- Exhale slowly for a count of 8 seconds.
- Slowly tense each group of muscles in your body, beginning with your toes.
- Hold the tension for a count of 5 seconds.
- Slowly exhale as you release the tension. Focus on the new looseness in your muscles for a count of 10 seconds, breathing slowly.
- Move on to the next muscle group and repeat.
In a 2015 study of 115 college students living with social anxiety, performing small acts of kindness for 4 weeks helped reduce the desire to avoid social situations.
The link between kindness and social anxiety may not be immediately clear, but it makes sense, when you think about it.
Social anxiety generally involves some fear of rejection or disapproval. But if you’ve just done something kind and thoughtful, like bringing a sick co-worker their favorite soup or offering to pick up your neighbor’s grocery order, the person you help is far more likely to have positive feelings toward you than negative ones.
Earning this approval on a regular basis can help decrease your fears around social situations, so you might find that interacting with others gradually becomes easier.
A drink or two often seems like a great way to ease social anxiety and feel more comfortable in social settings. Certainly, a small amount of alcohol can help you feel more relaxed — but alcohol can also intensify feelings of anxiety and leave you feeling worse.
If you regularly use alcohol to manage social anxiety symptoms, you could eventually reach a point where you find it impossible to socialize without alcohol. You might also end up needing to drink more to see the same effects.
Consider trying out a mindful drinking approach, which involves cultivating awareness around when you drink, how much you drink, and how it makes you feel.
What about cannabis?
Some people swear by cannabis for social anxiety, and
Just keep in mind not everyone responds to cannabis in the same way. It may not have much of an effect, but it could also worsen your anxiety. Always start with small doses and pay close attention to unwanted side effects before trying more.
OK, so you know avoiding social situations entirely won’t do much to improve social anxiety. But you’ll also want to steer clear of tactics that keep your participation superficial. For example:
- At parties, you keep busy in the kitchen, washing dishes and preparing food.
- When you find yourself in a conversation, you encourage the other person to talk about themselves.
- In a group, you stick to the edge, looking down at your phone so no one talks to you.
You might feel safer among the crowd when you show up without really engaging, but this doesn’t do you any favors when it comes to overcoming social anxiety. People may not reject you, but they can’t really get to know you unless you truly make an effort to interact.
Letting go of these not-so-helpful coping tactics may feel tough at first, but most people find the eventual payoff — improved relationships — well worth it.
Feeling self-conscious around others and fearing the possibility of their disapproval can make it difficult to forge connections with potential friends or romantic partners.
It’s perfectly fine to stay single or have only a few friends. But when social anxiety holds you back from new relationships, a few changes can make a big difference.
True, some people you meet may simply not like you, but that’s OK. It happens. The more interactions you have, the more likely you’ll encounter people who really do get you — and welcome you with open arms.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.