If the thought of having to attend a networking event, office holiday party, or family reunion with your uppity out-of-state cousins fills you with dread, then you might have social anxiety disorder. Also known as social phobia, the pervasive fear of being judged by one’s peers affects an estimated 15 million Americans. If you think you might be one of them, a physician can recommend the best course of treatment for you, but there are a few tactics you can try in the meantime. Here are some tips for coping with social anxiety disorder.
1. Ease into social situations.
Everything gets easier with practice, and the same concept applies to socializing. Avoiding parties and large gatherings may provide temporary relief of social phobia, but it isn't a long-term fix. To get started on your road to overcoming anxiety, the Mayo Clinic outlines a few steps that can be found in most cognitive behavioral therapy regimens. This form of psychotherapy challenges people's negative thoughts about social situations to help alleviate anxiety. One such step is to set small, manageable goals for yourself, like giving a stranger a compliment or asking an employee in a store for help finding something. Keep doing little tasks like these until you start to build confidence. Once you’ve mastered these social skills, you can more on to more challenging scenarios.
2. Prepare talking points to combat social anxiety disorder before an event.
We’re not saying you should memorize your lines, but it will ease some of the tension if you come to a party or networking event with a few conversation starters in mind. If possible, do some snooping to find out what some of the other guests are into, or check the news for interesting ice breakers. Just take it from author, life coach, and self-proclaimed “party-impaired individual” Martha Beck: “When you find yourself standing at the bar or reaching a dead end in a conversation, news of a sighting of Bessie, the Lake Erie monster, or some other tidbit that caught your attention will make it that much easier to mingle.”
3. Lay off the caffeine.
You may think that a cup of joe will perk you up and make it easier to conquer your fears, but it may end up making your social phobia worse. Coffee, chocolate, and soda are best avoided because stimulants such as these can elevate your levels of anxiety.
4. Get plenty of sleep.
In a similar vein, make sure you get plenty of sleep before your next big event. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends that you get at least eight hours of sleep each night. If you’re sleep-deprived, you may notice that it’s harder to immerse yourself in social situations.
5. Identify your negative thinking patterns.
Think back to the last time you felt anxious. What kinds of thoughts were you having in that moment? Did any of them make you feel worse? If so, you might be getting swept up in negative self-talk, which can fuel social phobia and make you feel more anxious. Identifying these thoughts when they pop up is the first step to confronting and changing them, according to the Social Anxiety Institute.
6. Imagine what would happen if your worst fears came true.
It may seem counterproductive, but asking yourself “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” is a good way to confront your “inner critic,” according to author and clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen. Avoid words like “always,” “never, “everybody,” and “nobody”—they’re vague and tend to overstate the risks you face. Instead, think about your specific fears of any given situation, and you will probably realize that “failure”—whether it’s tripping on stage or sounding awkward—isn’t as bad as it seems. The more you rationalize it, the more “‘Everyone will think I’m a freak’ turns into ‘The five or six people I talk to at the party might notice my hands shaking and think something is wrong with me,’” Hendriksen writes in her book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. If you do this enough, social situations won’t seem quite as scary.
7. Focus on someone else.
When you’re talking to someone, really make a concerted effort to listen to what they’re saying. This will help shift your focus away from your own insecurities. “The trick is to focus on anything except yourself, and that magically frees up a lot of bandwidth,” Hendriksen tells Vox. “When we’re able to do this, we come across as much more authentic and open and the anxiety disappears.”
8. Be proud that you put yourself out there.
Instead of scrutinizing every little thing you said or did after a social event, give yourself credit for simply doing something you find challenging—and living to tell the tale. Establishing a system of “self-reward” will help decrease your anxiety in the future, according to Robert L. Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City. “Who deserves more congratulation than you for trying hard to confront what is difficult?” Leahy writes in Psychology Today. “Just trying, just going, just staying in, and just tolerating the discomfort are reasons for reward. Each time you face your fear, you win and your fear loses.”