Millions of people live with social anxiety, and when that anxiety interferes with your ability to be happy and enjoy life, it can be a serious problem.
But social anxiety is also the type of condition people want to cure on their own. It's the type of condition that people feel they can cure on their own. So if you're someone suffering from social anxiety, the following represent some potential self-help strategies.
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For you to overcome social anxiety, you're going to have to deal with some anxiety in the interim. That's because social anxiety is actually a type of phobia, and combatting phobias involves subjecting yourself to fears in order for your mind to adapt when nothing dangerous happens.
Phobias and fears are a type of training. Many of the behaviors that people experience when they have phobias, including avoiding the subject of the phobia, reinforce the fear and make it worse. In order to stop the phobia, you need to be able to subject yourself to it often, and wait out the fear until it goes away.
Think of it in terms of spiders. If you had a fear of spiders, and you were stuck in the room with a spider that cannot bite you for days on end, you may experience fear but eventually you'll be fine, because nothing will happen and you'll get used to it. Your mind can get used to anything with enough time.
That said, there are two very effective strategies for taking advantage of this that can be completed in the comfort of your home:
One strategy is known as systematic desensitization. It involves slowly desensitizing yourself to social situations by starting small and escalating the fears slowly. For this type of self-help, you would do the following:
- First, find a comfortable place and do nothing but think about being in a social situation. Try to imagine it completely, including the sights, sounds, smells, and even the way that you might be touched or bumped into. Visualize yourself in the social situations you fear. But here's the key – do not stop doing this until you stop experiencing fear. No matter how uncomfortable it is for you, keep doing it, no matter how long it takes, until you don't experience anxiety. Then try it again another day, and another day. Do it until you stop experiencing any anxiety altogether.
- Once you no longer experience anxiety, it's time to move up. Try watching videos of social situations, like dance parties or what have you. Continue to try to picture yourself there, and watch the same videos over and over again until they cause no anxiety. They might not, since this strategy is more often used on other types of phobias, but you really need to surround yourself with what it's like to be in social situations.
- Once you've completed videos, it's time to smart small. Try going out with small groups of strangers. Keep it very small though at first. Try MeetUp.com, which is a useful site for event creation, or see about organizing a group in some type of social anxiety chatroom/forum. Try to also integrate some of the tips later in this article, as they'll be relevant for overcoming that anxiety.
- From there, try going to social events where you have no intention of being social so that you can learn to be more comfortable around people. A good example is a festival. You don't need to meet people at festivals, but you can get used to being around people. If you have a close friend, bring the friend, so that you have someone to talk to while in those social situations.
- Finally, keep increasing the number of people and the type of event. Eventually, start trying to talk to one or two people, and see how comfortable you are. It'll be a challenge, and this strategy isn't going to cure you of your anxiety all on its own, but over time you should see a difference as social situations become easier.
Systematic desensitization is tougher for social anxiety than other phobias, but it does work. It's a long process, but one that really helps you adapt to social situations better.
Combatting Specific Fears
The other useful strategy doesn't have a specific name, but can also be very helpful for overcoming social phobia on your own. It involves combatting specific fears that cause you anxiety, such as the fear of embarrassment, the fear of judgment, and the fear of regret. Arguably these three fears (plus a few others, in some ways, like the fears associated with intimidation) make up the core of social anxiety.
That means that if you can control these specific fears, you may be able to reduce the anxiety itself and overcome some of that shyness. Also, by separating these fears they may be easier to manage. This strategy takes a great deal of bravery and commitment, but it really can work. Here are some examples of how you can combat each specific fear:
- Embarrassment You'll need to purposely embarrass yourself. Drive out to a city farther away where you won't know people around you. Then do something weird like stand out in the street in a clown costume, or try to ask people if they've seen your lost pink ferret. Do an activity that is embarrassing, and keep doing it for hours and hours until you're not embarrassed anymore. The fear will be great, but it shouldn't be as bad as your overall social anxiety, and eventually it won't be as fearful because you'll do it for long enough that your mind will adjust.
- Judgment One way to combat this fear is to talk to people while giving a fake name. Most f this fear is mental. People see someone else's face and assume they're being judged negatively. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but most people with social anxiety aren't good face readers, and being judged by someone else doesn't matter as much as people's fears make them think it does. To overcome this you need to come to that realization, but in the meantime talking to people with a fake name makes any judgment they make obsolete.
- Regret Getting used to regret is a bit harder because you have to do something you regret. Since you shouldn't ever do anything illegal or put yourself in a situation that causes more stress, you can try simple strategies like writing the name of someone you hated in chalk in public (if legal) or starting a conversation with someone and immediately ending it abruptly so that you'll never find out what happens. You'll have regrets, but you'll get used to regret. This is also mental in many ways, however.
While the examples above include activities you can do, a huge part of it is simply learning for yourself how little the fears matter. So if you don’t want to try those activities, find strategies to help yourself understand that these fears are irrational so that you can better control them in social situations.
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Other Tips for Reducing Social Anxiety
The above two strategies are valuable techniques for decreasing social anxiety, but of course you'll still need to branch out in your day to day life. Here are a few ideas to help you as you get used to social situations.
- Start Strong Any time you do talk to someone, don't start quietly and expect yourself to gain momentum over time. Start strong. Those that do public speaking find that when they start strong they get into a groove. It's the same with most social environments. When you're out there, starting strong, you're more likely to get comfortable fast.
- Talk to Anyone You're Comfortable With You may not be comfortable in social situations yet, but you probably encounter people speaking to you regularly. Make sure you're always talking back. For example, when the coffee shop employee asks you how your day is, tell them your day is great and make sure you ask them how their day was. It's a little change, but it will get you used to talking.
- Learn Positive Thinking/Talking Social anxiety has a tendency to make people sound more negative, both due to some of the effects of shyness and the overall view of social situations. Try to learn to talk positively, because positivity attracts friendliness, which attracts less negative emotions. Strategies to improve positive thinking include faking positivity all day until you naturally pick up on it, writing out 10 positive things that happened each day in a journal, and spending time with more positive people.
- Get a Best Friend Studies have shown that those that know they're supported by someone else have much more confidence. While of course meeting people is difficult, if you have someone you like and can talk to, try to really bond with them. The more you feel supported by them, the more you should be a bit more confident when you're out – even when they're not with you.
- Exercise Exercise has a profound effect on anxiety, and is a valuable tool for reducing social anxiety. Exercise releases neurotransmitters in the brain that improve mood and relaxation, while simultaneously tiring out some of your body so your anxiety symptoms are less severe. If you're not exercising yet, you should be, because the effects on mental health are substantial.
- Keep Going After Panic This can be tough, but it's important. If you have a panic attack in a social situation, one of the most important things for you to do is get up when it's over and keep trying. It may sound strange or difficult, but fear of panic and anxiety creates more panic and anxiety, and leaving a social situation when you have anxiety reinforces the fear. Ideally, you need to get up once the panic attack is over and try to get back to the social life, no matter how hard it feels.
- Try Talking on Vacation to Practice Finally, while it's not a fool proof plan, a big part of the fear comes from being in a location where you may know people or see them again. That's why you may want to consider trying many of these strategies on a vacation in a city further away that you have no connection to. Many people find that they actually manage to overcome many of their social anxiety symptoms when they are far enough from home that they don't care about the outcome of discussions. See if you can possibly take a long vacation so that you're not quite as concerned about judgment from others.
Social anxiety is a serious problem, which is why self-help for social anxiety is so valuable. Rest assured that social phobia is a very treatable condition – in fact, it has an extremely high treatment outcome. It just takes some time and effort to get everything going.
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