The thought of attending an office happy hour, birthday party or backyard BBQ may sound like a blast to most people. However, these types of engagements can be a crippling concept for those with social anxiety.
It’s a condition that affects approximately 15 million American adults. According to the Social Anxiety Association, “the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people” is also the third largest mental health care problem in the world today.
The good news is that the disorder can be managed so that it doesn’t stand in the way of a fulfilling life. Here are some expert-backed tips on how to tackle social anxiety to make day-to-day events less overwhelming.
1. Go into a social setting armed with a strategy.
“As damaging as being ‘too into your head’ can be, some preparation and intent can be very beneficial,” said Bill Koch, a Chicago-based clinical therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders.
One such strategy is to identify places and people that will help you feel the most comfortable.
“This can make the difference between a surprisingly pleasant evening and your worst nightmare come true. Having some plan can help instill a feeling of confidence and some much wanted control over a situation that feels out of control,” Koch said.
Upon arriving at a party, for instance, he recommends immediately seeking out a calm area within the space. “If you know the place you are going will be hectic, make a plan to spend most of the time on the patio where you won’t feel bombarded by a large crowd,” he said.
Another tip is to start small and work your way up from there. Koch recommends kicking off the night by chatting with a few close friends in the kitchen before diving into the full party crowd. He also suggests surrounding yourself with people you know or with whom you’re comfortable to act as a cushion.
“Identifying a person you are comfortable with can be an ‘in case of emergency’ plan,” he said. “If you are feeling overwhelmed, you can retreat to a familiar face where you feel more at ease and can calm down.”
2. Give yourself a calming mantra and don’t be afraid to use it.
Reciting a mantra can give you a sense of control in a stressful social situation, according to Koch.
“Whenever you feel anxious, repeating a calming word or phrase can serve as a friendly reminder that anxiety is only a feeling created by thoughts,” he said.
Your mantra can range from a single word to a quickly uttered thought such as “easy, easy, easy,” “no one cares,” or “not a big deal.”
“I have had clients that used simple affirmations like ‘you’re cool, you’re cool’ as a way to instill positive self-talk,” Koch explained. “And even the clichéd ‘woosa’ works as well ― really any type of word or phrase that can help refocus your attention from unwanted anxious thoughts to your own calming self-talk will do.”
3. Always have an escape route.
“As dramatic as it may seem, many of my clients benefit from knowing they can leave a social commitment when and if they need to at any time,” said Annie Wright, a Berkeley, California-based licensed psychotherapist.
Choose to drive instead of carpooling with a friend who may want to stay later, load the Uber or Lyft app on your phone, or book your own hotel room at the conference so that you can get away.
“Whatever it looks like, building a proverbial ‘escape route’ into your plans can paradoxically decrease social anxiety that may be more heightened if you feel trapped at the event,” Wright said.
4. Burn off adrenaline in advance.
In order to help you keep your cool, Wright recommends releasing as much stress as possible before arriving at a social engagement.
“You can help your nervous system remain more regulated when you get there if you burn off an excess of adrenaline that may be in your body,” she explained.
Her favorite methods for pre-event de-stressing? Squeeze in a good, sweaty workout, have sex or embark upon a marathon housecleaning session to tire yourself out.
5. Become an all-star listener.
“People love a good listener,” said Lynn R. Zakeri, a licensed social worker in the greater Chicago area. And making a point to listen to someone else helps reduce the feeling that you have to carry the conversation.
Zakeri suggests tuning into key words you hear from others and then repeating them.
“For example, someone mentions they are busy because their child is sick, so you simply state ‘Yes, having a sick child can throw everything off’ or even ‘How is your child now?’” she said.
Finding the “entertainer” in the room and gravitating toward that person is another good tactic.
“An entertainer adores his or her entertainee and will even say they had such a good time with you! You laughed at the right places. You uh-huh’ed and nodded and empathized,” Zakeri said.
6. Have a few go-to conversation topics.
Arriving at a party with a few pre-planned stories can make it easier to converse with strangers.
“You can even practice a ‘Sorry I am late. Guess what happened when I left work today’ type of entrance,” Zakeri said.
Agnes Wainman, a clinical psychologist at London Psychological Services in Ontario, Canada, noted that you can also try a few questions to get the ball rolling, such as “How do you like to spend your free time?” or “What was the last great book that you read?”
“Many people are starved to talk about themselves so they love these types of questions. It also leaves most of the talking to them,” she said.
Forrest Talley, formerly the co-training director at the University of California, Davis Children’s Hospital’s CAARE Diagnostic and Treatment Center, said when all else fails, tap into something that is popular at the moment like the Olympics, the Super Bowl or a recent movie. He also reminds patients that people love a good compliment.
“Tell someone that you like a piece of jewelry or clothing they are wearing and ask what store they bought it from,” he said.
7. Breathe through any anxiety that may pop up.
Studies show that slow breathing can help prompt a sense of tranquility.
“But sometimes we forget to breathe. It sounds silly, but when we are tense or anxious, our breath is the first thing to go,” said Ilissa Nico, a psychotherapist in Green Village, New Jersey.
To overcome this, Nico recommends grounding yourself by slowing your breathing and being in the present moment.
“You can do this by inhaling for eight counts and exhaling for eight counts,” she said. “This is a great exercise to practice anytime — it can be simultaneously calming and energizing.”
8. Baby-step your way into social situations.
To push through a bout of social anxiety, Nico suggests taking small risks.
“Even though this can be difficult, sometimes the best way over is through,” she explained. “Avoiding isolation and setting incremental goals can make all the difference. In time, it becomes easier to make bigger leaps into socialization.”
Nico also recommends exposing yourself to things outside your comfort zone, one baby step at a time.
Begin with “a small initial exposure … like putting yourself in a situation that is time-limited or only mildly uncomfortable and building from there,” Nico said.
For example, try committing to attend a party for an hour versus forcing yourself to stay the whole night. Or spend time in social settings with supportive, understanding people versus a giant group of complete strangers.
“It can often feel very rewarding and can serve to build self-esteem when we set goals, even small ones, and reach them,” Nico said.
9. Pause to take in your surroundings.
This can be a form of mindfulness and a great way to shift your own focus away from any uneasy feelings that are creeping up, according to Michael Hilgers, a licensed professional counselor in Austin, Texas.
“I usually encourage clients to run through their five senses when experiencing flair-ups of social anxiety. What do they smell, hear, see, feel and taste in that moment?” he said. “It’s a completely portable process and can help ground them in the present, which has an overall calming effect.”
Here’s one way to do it, according to Hilgers:
Restaurants are a great example of an environment where one might use this strategy. Dinners can be stressful, but one can take a moment to pay attention to the smell of the flower on the table, the taste of the food, the coolness of the silverware, the sounds coming from the kitchen, and the colors in the salad to help bring one back to center. It’s essentially the idea that our brains can’t be in two opposite places at once, so really paying attention to the present can keep insecurities, catastrophic thinking and the what-ifs of social anxiety at a distance.
10. Challenge your distorted thinking.
Laurie Chackes, owner and clinical director of The Center for Mindfulness & CBT in St. Louis, Missouri, assigns her clients the task of writing down the specific thoughts that go through their heads before, during and after situations that trigger anxiety. Are they thinking “Everyone will judge me” or “They’ll think I sound stupid” or “I am so boring” or “No one will talk to me”?
For each thought, she then tells them to ask the following questions and write out the answers: “Is this 100 percent true all the time?” “What is the worst that could happen if this is true?” “How likely is this?” “How bad would it really be?” “Could I handle it?” “What is more likely to happen?”
Finally, Chackes tells her clients to “compile these answers into a few coping statements that you can read before you go into a social situation that is causing you anxiety.”
Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California, adds that while it’s highly unlikely that someone else will actually aim one of these criticisms at you in public, the exercise of mentally addressing them ahead of time can be a calming practice.
11. Don’t overdo the alcohol.
A study conducted by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that excessive drinking can actual rewire the brain, thus making an individual more susceptible to anxiety. So while it can be tempting to calm your nerves with a hearty dose of wine, reaching for that extra glass may not be the best coping mechanism.
“Excess alcohol may seem like it will help you relax, but sometimes it can backfire and make you feel more anxious and nervous in your surroundings,” said Shilpi Agarwal, author of The 10-Day Total Body Transformation: A Doctor’s Guide To Getting Leaner, Cleaner, and Happier in Just 10 Days.
Agarwal tells those with social anxiety to practice moderation with any substance that can be mood altering.
“Avoid alcohol, too much caffeine or sugary drinks,” she said. In their place, Agarwal recommends sparkling water with lime or a splash of juice or lemonade. Or if you’re at a daytime function, try a mug of herbal tea, which often has a calming effect.
“If you can try to stick to just one drink, this is your best bet. Ask for a half pour first or really pace yourself so you don’t go overboard,” she said.
12. Resist the urge to avoid social situations.
“Defeating social anxiety requires a daily commitment not to avoid uncomfortable social situations at work or in your daily activities,” said Brittain Mahaffey, a licensed clinical psychologist and research scientist at the Mind-Body Clinical Research Center at Stony Brook Medicine.
Anytime you feel yourself withdrawing or being quiet, Mahaffey said you should challenge yourself to talk to and fully engage with other people. She also tells patients that they can benefit from gently pushing themselves to do little things that are embarrassing on a daily basis.
“For example, sometimes I will take socially anxious clients to the store and ask them to pay for a sizable grocery purchase using only coins or encourage them to use silly pick-up lines on online dating websites,” she said.
You may feel foolish while doing these things, Mahaffey said, but it will get easier over time. “This strategy will also give you the opportunity to see that it won’t be the end of the world if you do embarrass yourself,” she explained.
13. Applaud your efforts.
Those with social anxiety tend to be very hard on themselves and this type of criticism can be damaging, according to Crystal Lee, psychologist and owner of LA Concierge Psychologist. Instead of critiquing yourself, she suggests trying some self-compassion.
“Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend or family member,” she said. “Remember that all people struggle sometimes and you’re not alone in your experience. Try not to let the negative emotions sweep you away and stay mindfully present.”
Wright also suggests focusing on the positive by reminding yourself of all the times that you have been successful in social situations.
“In advance of social situations that are causing you anxiety, recall all the other times you felt afraid of going to a social situation and yet had an OK, if not good time,” she said. “Tally up the evidence of how you’ve been able to cope and manage with your social anxiety before, and remind yourself that you’re capable of doing it again.”