Making friends is difficult — especially as an adult. But making friends can be even more difficult for people who experience social anxiety disorder.
It’s normal for there to be a heightened level of anxiety when meeting new people, but there’s a difference between the anxiety that we all experience from time to time and social anxiety.
Social anxiety stems from having an excessive fear of being judged by people, whether the worry is that you won’t be liked or that you’ll do something humiliating.
For people with social anxiety disorder, everyday social interaction — even with established friends — can provoke anxiety.
When it comes to making new friends, people with social anxiety may find themselves paralyzed, afraid of saying the wrong thing, or being harshly judged.
Even if they know these fears are irrational, social situations still trigger anxiety symptoms. They may shut down, withdraw, or become noticeably nervous.
For those who have social anxiety, but want to make new friends, here are some techniques that can help you feel more comfortable in social situations, opening you up to new connections.
One of the first lines of defense when it comes to social situations for people with social anxiety is to immediately put up a wall of negative thoughts, like “I will humiliate myself.” It’s an automatic reaction.
Learning to agree to disagree with these initial reactions can be a way to press through them — and eventually minimize negative beliefs. This is called curiosity training.
“The way this works is someone with social anxiety will hear these thoughts and not judge them, but put them in the background of their mind. It becomes background noise while they socialize so that they can take a curious mindset,” says Dr. Allison Forti, PhD, assistant professor at Wake Forest University.
This means being curious as to what people are saying, rather than absorbing it as an evaluation.
How to keep negativity in the background
Let’s be honest. Completely silencing negative thoughts rarely works. Instead, here’s how to not get too caught up in them:
- Recognize your negative thought for what it is — just a thought.
- Don’t judge your thought or yourself for having it.
- Let it shift into the background by maintaining a neutral or even dismissive assessment. Think “It’s just a thought, not necessarily reality” or “I agree to disagree, anxiety.”
- Optional: Imagine a more positive alternative scenario or outcome.
It’s natural to want to avoid the things that frighten you. But avoiding the situations that trigger you can actually make anxiety worse in the long run.
“The more we expose ourselves to the situations that we fear, the more comfortable we become navigating them,” says psychologist Dr. Victoria Shaw.
“You don’t have to go crazy and face your biggest fears all at once. It is actually best to start with situations that are only mildly uncomfortable and then to gradually work up to those that might have previously sent you into all-out panic,” Shaw explains.
For example, you could work your way through these goals if you tend to clam up when meeting new people:
- make eye contact with a stranger
- smile at someone you don’t know
- introduce yourself to someone new
- ask someone you just met a question
- give someone new a compliment
Working with a therapist may help with identifying where to start — and gradually expanding your comfort zone.
Technology is a new way to connect with people, but it can also perpetuate social anxiety.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Dr. Forti. “It’s so easy to socialize with people over our phones that it becomes a way for someone with social anxiety to say, ‘I don’t need to change. I can have all the friends I need over my computer.'”
Why put down the phone then? In-person connections can often be
Yes, online social connections are better than no connections at all. But ask yourself the question: Are you using tech to avoid social situations? Or do you enjoy it and does it make life a little better — while still balanced with in-person interactions?
Social anxiety can sometimes feel all-consuming, and unfamiliar situations with new people can make it worse.
To help ease feeling overwhelmed, try a test run before a big event so that at least some part of the routine feels familiar.
For example, practice the commute, look into coffee shops near the destination, or visit the activity location ahead of time so you can identify a spot to get away for a moment if you’re feeling too anxious.
Talk therapy is always an option for treating any anxiety disorder. When it comes to social anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment.
CBT is full of techniques that can help manage your thoughts, emotions, and even physical response to social situations.
One technique a therapist might use is an exposure method. It exposes patients to the dreaded situations and suggests ways to manage fear.
For example, you may start with a 3-minute visualization of a specific social scenario or interaction that triggers anxiety. Over time, you might add more visualization time, expose yourself to the situation in small doses (think: saying hello to your barista), and eventually graduate to scarier situations.
As you slowly expose yourself to these fears, they’ll have less and less power over your emotions.
Self-care is essential for everyone, but especially for people with anxiety.
Remember to be kind to yourself and know your limits, and try not to push yourself past your breaking point. Get sufficient sleep and eat regular, healthy meals.
Try to go easy on the booze. Sometimes it’s common for people to rely on alcohol in social situations as a way to loosen up, but in the end this actually exacerbates anxiety.
healthier ways to keep a drink in hand
- Try the one-to-one method of alternating between an alcoholic drink and a glass of water.
- Create a mocktail that you know you love. Add some flavor to sparkling water with bitters, lemon slices, or a splash of juice.
Everyone struggles with something in life. If you only stay for half the party, that’s still a win as you continue working through your anxiety.
The kinder you are to yourself, the more you invite others to follow suit.
Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.