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Anxiety

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How to overcome social anxiety: expert tips

Written by Saya Des Marais

Published: Jan 11, 2024

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Geralyn Dexter

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Have you ever felt anxious before a party and been afraid to embarrass yourself publicly? If yes, you’ve had a small taste of what it feels like to have social anxiety. But for people with social anxiety disorder, these fears are excessive and debilitating – and can have serious impacts on everyday life. In this article, we offer tips on how to overcome social anxiety.

Social anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that causes people to experience severe and disproportionate worries about peoples’ perception of them. Although social anxiety can feel crushing and impossible to overcome when in the depths of it, there are effective tactics and treatments that can help.

If you need support to deal with social anxiety, you can find a provider on Klarity today and get started with an appointment within 48 business hours.

Before we dive in to how to deal with social anxiety, let’s take a look at what it is and its symptoms.

What is social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a mental health condition that affects around 12% of U.S. adults. It causes people to fear excessive embarrassment and humiliation in social settings and can become debilitating if left untreated.

Symptoms of social anxiety disorder

The Diagnostics Statistical Manual, or the DSM, is the most common medical resource mental health practitioners use to make assessments and diagnoses. According to the latest edition of the DSM, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:

  • An intense fear of being scrutinized by others whenever you’re in social situations. You could have this fear in nearly all social situations or just some specific social situations (like work).
  • Worries about social humiliation and embarrassment are excessive, meaning they’re out of proportion to what’s considered a “normal” fear. For example, if you get very nervous before an important interview, this isn’t considered “excessive.” Feeling very anxious when having to interact with the cashier could be disproportionate.
  • You tend to avoid the social situations that give you anxiety. If you do participate, you feel like you “survive” them rather than enjoy the situation. You endure the event and have a great deal of anxiety and discomfort.
  • You experience physical symptoms when you’re anxious, like sweating or blushing. This makes you feel even more anxious because you worry other people will notice your symptoms.
  • Your fears significantly disrupt your daily routine or relationships. For example, they have had a negative impact on your work or dating life.

Social anxiety vs. Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety is a serious condition. However, it’s important to note that in addition to people who have diagnosable social anxiety disorder, many others experience social anxiety to different extents. 

We’ve all been anxious around other people at least once in our lives. For example, you might have been nervous before a first date or had some anxiety before speaking in front of a crowd of people. In this way, social anxiety is a common human experience. It’s only when social anxiety starts to get in the way of daily functioning that you may be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.

What causes social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety disorder doesn’t have a single cause. Researchers believe that a combination of genetics, brain biology, and environmental factors leads to the condition in some people. According to research on the onset of social anxiety disorder in children, being bullied as a child may also raise your risk of developing social anxiety disorder later on.

How to overcome social anxiety

Social anxiety disorder can seriously interfere with your daily life and relationships. Without intervention, these symptoms aren’t likely to go away on their own. 

Social anxiety disorder is a chronic health condition that requires treatment from a licensed mental health provider – it’s not something that you can manage on your own. But for milder experiences of social anxiety or in conjunction with professional treatments, self-care practices may help.

How to deal with social anxiety: 6 expert tips

Here are 6 expert tips for how to deal with social anxiety.

Don’t avoid social situations

As humans, we instinctively avoid things that scare us. So, it’s only natural for people who live with social anxiety tend to avoid social interactions altogether. It may seem easier this way – if you never put yourself in social situations to begin with, then there’s nothing to fear. Right?

Unfortunately, that’s not how social anxiety works. Avoiding (whether it’s through not attending events or avoiding the anxiety in another way, like by getting very drunk) can provide temporary relief. But in the long run, according to research on exposure therapy for anxiety disorders, social anxiety only gets worse the more you avoid your triggers.

In part, this is because you never get the opportunity to prove to yourself that your social interactions aren’t as scary as you fear. This leaves you to believe, more and more, that you can’t handle them – which leads you to avoid them even more, and so on. You also don’t get the opportunity to practice your social skills. To put it simply, avoidance reinforces the negative cycle of social anxiety.

The tip: Fight the urge to avoid social interactions that make you feel anxious. The more you expose yourself to situations that cause your anxiety, the easier these situations will become over time. 

However, It’s also important not to flood yourself too quickly with scary experiences. Take it one step at a time (see the next tip!).

Gradually increase exposure

When trying to get over any fear, it’s important to take it slowly. You wouldn’t force someone with a spider phobia to jump into a tank full of tarantulas. In the same way, forcing yourself to jump into a scary social situation when you live with social anxiety isn’t a good idea.

Trying to start with your most severe triggers can scare you off from trying to overcome social anxiety altogether. It can also heighten your anxiety to a point that isn’t helpful. When facing your fears, it’s more effective to start small. 

Think about challenging yourself to a social interaction that’s nerve-racking but not terrifying. For example, you might have a casual get-together with a close friend or say good morning to the person in the cubicle beside you at work. The more you expose yourself to these situations, the easier they become.

According to a Frontiers in Psychology article, one of the most effective treatments for social anxiety disorder is exposure therapy (ET). With the support of a qualified therapist, you can create a tiered list of your fears (from least to most anxiety-provoking) and expose yourself to them one by one – starting with something that only makes you a little bit anxious. This method give you confidence and keeps you motivated to continue tackling your fears.

Go easy on drugs and alcohol

Many people with social anxiety use drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. They feel that being under the influence helps them be more outgoing and confident.

But it can be dangerous to use alcohol and drugs as a crutch to deal with social anxiety. First, it’s a type of avoidance behavior that reaffirms the belief you’re incapable of confronting your fears without the help of substances. This isn’t true – and it’s important to give yourself a chance to prove otherwise. 

In addition, alcohol and drugs often make us behave in ways that are objectively seen as “embarrassing” in front of other people. You may not care while under the influence but may feel differently later. This risk makes your feelings of shame and humiliation worse.

Alcohol, specifically, can worsen symptoms of depression – a mental health condition that’s closely linked to social anxiety.

The tip: If you’re going to drink or use other substances, do so in moderation or not at all  – and use other coping skills instead.

Practice relaxation techniques

Hearing “just relax!” when you’re terrified isn’t the most helpful advice. But, relaxation is one of the most effective ways to manage all types of anxiety – including social anxiety, whether clinical or situational.

Relaxation doesn’t have to mean taking a bubble bath or getting your nails done. It’s a learned skill that takes practice. The more you practice intentionally relaxing your body and mind, the easier the skill gets for you – especially during important moments like when you’re feeling socially anxious.

Several evidence-based methods have been shown to promote relaxation. One such method is called progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. During PMR, you’re guided to tense, and then relax, every muscle group as you make your way through the body. For example, you might tense and relax your hands, your forearms, your shoulders, and so on.

Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis to start practicing PMR (or whatever relaxation method you choose). Practice it even when you’re feeling no stress or tension in your body at all. By making this a habit, you’ll be more likely to be able to relax when you’re in moments of distress.

Challenge your negative thoughts

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, posits that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected. 

Often, we have an unhelpful thought that causes us to feel or behave in a certain way that makes the situation worse. Using social anxiety as an example, you might have a thought like, “Nobody likes me. They don’t even want me to be here.” A thought like this can cause you to feel flustered and anxious. You might leave the situation altogether or be so preoccupied with these thoughts that you’re not fully present during conversations. All of this can make your social anxiety worse.

It’s easier said than done, but try to notice and challenge these thoughts when they come up. When you notice a thought is making you feel worse, question it. 

Ask yourself:

  • Is the thought true? 
  • What evidence is there to support that the thought is true?
  • What evidence is there to support that it may not be true? 
  • Am I falling into any cognitive distortions or unhelpful patterns of thinking? For example, am I dismissing all of the positive aspects of the situation and zeroing in only on the negative? 

To be fair, this is difficult to do on your own. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help you learn to challenge your most powerful negative thoughts and can even give you homework to help you practice this skill between sessions.

Get professional help

The effects of social anxiety are different for everyone.  If you live with social anxiety disorder, it’s unlikely that these symptoms will go away on their own. Luckily, there’s very effective treatment out there that can help you learn how to manage this condition and build a healthy and happy social life.

Even if you don’t have a clinical social anxiety disorder, talking to a therapist can help you cope with anxiety and life in general.

Treatment for social anxiety can include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. 

According to research on the recent advances in the understanding and psychological treatment of social anxiety disorder, the most effective types of psychotherapeutic treatments for social anxiety disorder include: 

The psychiatric medications approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of social anxiety disorder include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil)
  • A serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) called venlafaxine (Effexor)
  • A beta blocker called propranolol (Inderal) for performance anxiety

Your mental health treatment provider can help you navigate the treatment options and make the right choice for treatment. 

Connect with a social anxiety therapist on Klarity

When you’re in the painful depths of social anxiety, you don’t have the time – or energy – to wade through the sea of online therapist profiles and wait on lists. You need support now.

Luckily, on Klarity, you can find a board-certified mental health provider to help you manage social anxiety – no insurance necessary.

A vibrant social life is waiting for you on the other side of social anxiety treatment. Get started today and get your tailored anxiety therapy from licensed mental health professionals on Klarity.

FAQs and tips for social anxiety

What’s the best advice to overcome social anxiety?

There are some general tips you can keep in mind when dealing with social anxiety – resist the urge to avoid the things that scare you, find ways to relax in anxiety-provoking social situations, and challenge thinking that makes your anxiety worse. Keep in mind that, like most mental health conditions, you may need the support of a licensed therapist to overcome your social anxiety.

How can I find a therapist who can help me with social anxiety?

On Klarity, you can get connected with a licensed mental health provider both online and offline. These professionals, including psychiatrists and licensed mental health counselors, can provide you with the most helpful social anxiety treatments based on your unique needs.

Can you live a normal life with social anxiety?

One of the core features of social anxiety disorder is how disruptive it is to day-to-day life. Social anxiety can impact your relationships and social life and affect your self-esteem, career, and more. You deserve better – and professional social anxiety treatment can help you live as normal a life as possible.

What makes social anxiety worse?

Although it might seem like it helps, avoiding what triggers your social anxiety – social situations, being out in public, etc. – can make social anxiety worse in the long run. On top of avoiding social gatherings altogether, even partially avoiding them – such as leaving parties early due to anxiety or getting high – to avoid feeling anxious can make anxiety worse.

How do you treat crippling social anxiety?

Social anxiety disorder is typically treated with psychotherapy or a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Some of the most effective types of therapy for social anxiety include CBT, exposure therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. Medication can also be helpful, especially if your symptoms are severe.

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