Overcoming Social Anxiety
Self-doubt and self-criticism are at the root of much shyness and social anxiety. We have mistaken beliefs (“Everyone’s looking at me!”) that hold is back. These beliefs keep us from having the sort of meaningful, intimate relationships we want.
A good first step is learning to relax a bit.
Physical tension, shortness of breath and sweaty palms often accompany social anxiety. Sometimes the feeling is almost one of panic.
Learning to calm yourself is key to overcoming this level of distress. Deep, slow breaths can help. A breath I often teach my clients is a 4-7-8 breath: inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8. Practicing this can often bring relief in a just a minute or two. And practicing this breath before entering a social situation can help you stay calmer in social situations.
Notice how you talk to yourself.
Recognize negative voices that give you critical, defeatist messages. Once you start to recognize them you’re no longer on autopilot. A thought is not the same thing as a reality. You can begin to assert some control. A good place to start is simply by labeling the thought, perhaps saying to yourself, “That’s just a thought.” Avoid arguing with the voice in your head. And certainly don’t compound the problem by yelling at yourself! “I’m an idiot for having such negative thoughts!” is really just another negative thought.
Try paying special attention to thoughts that include words like always, never, should, etc. These are rarely true and often just cause us more anxiety. And look for other ridiculous thoughts. Everyone is not always looking at you, for instance.
Changing patterns requires patience and practice. Don’t criticize yourself. See if you can work up some self- encouragement instead.
Do you feel reasonably confident about how you physically present yourself? Some people with social anxiety hold their bodies as if they were trying to be inconspicuous. If your posture is slouched or stiff, practice looking relaxed and open in front of a mirror. Do you look approachable and welcoming? Confident?
Practice makes good enough (not perfect).
Try what psychotherapist call behavioral rehearsal – practicing interacting with someone else. Role-play introducing yourself. How’s the tone of your voice? Do you naturally speak very softly? Trying increasing your volume a bit, which will help you sound more confident. As you look in the mirror, are you looking yourself in the eye? An open, friendly gaze and a firm handshake create a positive impression. If looking someone in the eye is uncomfortable for you, practice in front of a mirror or with a friend.
You’re not going to be perfect. Neither is anyone else.
Some people with social anxiety have an intense fear of rejection and imagine themselves being overwhelmed by shame if they made a request and someone turned them down. Sometimes we overestimate the likelihood of hearing “no.” Other times, being open to the possibility of “no” is the price of admission. If you’re going to ask someone out on a date or making a sales call, for instance, hearing no is definitely a possibility. But it is a thinking error to imagine that you couldn’t stand hearing “no.” Of course you could stand it! It would merely be a disappointment. But you may need to hear several “no’s” before you date the right person.
Taming our fears.
One strategy I’ve sometimes used with clients is to assign them the homework of collecting at least three “no’s” during the next week or two. The goal is to desensitize them to the feared event. Yet most of the time what people report is…they failed the homework because no one turned them down! When that happens, I suggest they try again the following week. Soon they find that fear of rejection no longer rules their social life.
If you experience social anxiety, the right treatment for you will focus on your particular situation. The thing to remember is that this is treatable, you have options, and your life will be richer when you seek help and get past your worries.
I have been licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years. My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression. My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships.
I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems. My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate. If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.
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Whether you've worked with a therapist before or are exploring counseling for the first time, you probably have questions. It is important to have the information you need to make a good decision when selecting a therapist. I welcome your questions -- about your specific situation, about me or about my approach to therapy. Making things better can start with an email, or you can call me at (404) 874-8536.