Does being around large groups of people make you want to curl up and die? Is your go-to move at parties hiding in the bathroom? Do you worry people think you’re standoffish when the truth is you’re just too nervous to talk to them? If so, and if this is a reoccurring experience for you, there’s a chance you suffer from social anxiety.
Anxiety disorders often center around a singular or group of core fears. Social anxiety, then, combines several common anxious fears, notably a lack of control or being judged by others, and severely interferes with daily life. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America points out that social anxiety is not “simply shyness that has been inappropriately medicalized.” Rather, it’s an intense fear—or phobia—that manifests in physical and psychological phenomena including shaking, sweating, panic attacks and substance abuse.
Symptoms of social anxiety typically start during the early teenage years, making high school an especially excruciating period. Psychologically, we start the transition from the family we’re born into to the family we choose for ourselves during adolescence, meaning that interacting with others only becomes more crucial. However, people with social anxiety tend to isolate themselves, postponing the opportunity to develop various types of relationships that help people figure out how to operate as an adult.
Like other mood disorders, social anxiety can’t be “cured,” but with a little effort and a lot of trust, it can be managed. Here are five pieces of advice, both small steps and confident strides, you can take to overcome social anxiety and show your brain who’s boss.
1. Take Baby Steps
As with any medical condition, overcoming or learning to manage social anxiety is a process, which means you need to set realistic goals. A good first step to take is realizing that you don’t need accompaniment to have a good time—or even go—in public. There are plenty of activities that don’t require a buddy, namely getting a cup of coffee, visiting a park or library or seeing a movie (plus, it’s dark so you can hide!). Use these opportunities to work up to outings that may feel more stressful. If you’re up for it, practice small talk with strangers—often, talking to someone you’ll likely never see again is much easier than speaking to someone you know. The enemy of social anxiety is self-reliance.
2. Seek Out Different Interactions
We’re lucky enough to live in an age where communication doesn’t have to involve any sort of physical closeness to other beings—in other words, anxious people thrive on the internet. Use social media or messaging services to practice holding a conversation in a non-threatening environment, where you’re free of snags that might complicate traditional social situations like stuttering or speaking too quietly. You can also seek out anonymous help through anxiety forums or chat rooms. Find like-minded individuals in a chat room like Healthful Chat or a listener or therapist over at 7 Cups. There are also a number of apps and online services you can try. From there, work your way up to texting, talking on the phone and face-to-face interactions.
3. Know You’re Not Alone
Anxiety is incredibly common—about 18 percent of the adult American population suffers from some form of anxiety disorder. Considering that ratio, you’re bound to know some fellow anxious folk who are either just as terrified as you are or have figured out how to manage that fear. Explore different spheres—coworkers and classmates are more approachable, especially if you see them on a daily basis, but you can also find support in groups focused on ballroom dancing, volunteering and any other interest. Once you’ve found your person (or people), reach out gently.
4. Have a Plan
Anxiety is all about dreading what could happen, so making solid plans for social situations can be the difference between a horrible and enjoyable outing. Invite that anxious friend you’ve made along: there’s no better voice of reason than one that innately understands your fears. Solid planning can help you avoid unhealthy crutches, like, say, downing beer until you feel “okay to talk to people.” Substances can often worsen anxiety and complicate your escape plan. If you tend to leave things early (hey, people are only so bearable), have an exit plan. Stay sober so you can drive home, or secure a friend or someone trustworthy who can help you leave.
5. Or, Push Yourself
When you feel ready, take a chance—go to that event, talk to that person you’re afraid you’ll embarrass yourself in front of, congratulate yourself for the effort you’ve taken. The thing about baby steps is they still take you somewhere. Keep precautions, especially that escape plan or understand buddy, in mind—just because you’re leaping doesn’t mean you can’t operate without backup. And if things don’t go exactly as you’d hoped (which is why step 1 is so important), remember to take pride in the fact that you stepped out of your comfort zone. Once you start facing your fear, opportunities you could only daydream about before become attainable.
Sarra Sedghi is the assistant editor of Paste’s food and science sections.