On 3/6/2019, the TODAY show aired a segment on the self-defeating and sometimes crippling social disorder known as social anxiety. Social anxiety is a serious problem that affects millions of people.
Social anxiety disorder usually comes on at around 13 years of age. It can be linked to a history of abuse, bullying, or teasing. Shy kids are also more likely to become socially anxious adults, as are children with overbearing or controlling parents. If you develop a health condition that draws attention to your appearance or voice, that could trigger social anxiety as well.
What is Social Anxiety?
“It is fundamentally a distortion. It’s a belief that something is wrong with you — that you have a fatal flaw,” Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologists, told TODAY. “We perceive we’re incapable or stupid or incompetent in a social situation, and unless we conceal it, it will be revealed and we’ll be judged or rejected.”
All socially anxious people have different reasons for dreading certain situations, but in general, it’s an overwhelming fear of:
- Being judged by others in social situations
- Being embarrassed or humiliated — and showing it by blushing, sweating, or shaking
- Accidentally offending someone
- Being the center of attention
Hendrikson gives us advice on how to overcome and rise above this disorder. You can get to the point where fear does not own you.
How to Overcome Social Anxiety
1. Challenge your Inner Critic
It’ll make you doubt yourself, conjure up the worst-case scenario and convince you it will definitely happen. But what it says is not true, Hendriksen said.
Talk back to your Inner Critic with logic, she advised. First, specify exactly what you’re afraid of. Perhaps you think: “I’ll make a fool of myself if I say something right now.” Then ask yourself three questions:
- How bad would that really be? OK, someone may be bored for a moment or someone will look at you funny. It’s not the end of the world.
- What are the odds? Pretty low. Do you really think people will mock you or laugh in your face?
- How will I cope? You can smile, turn to a friend or start a new conversation. Life goes on.
2. Let go of safety behaviors
To lessen anxiety in social situations, people either pull out their phones or even leave the room. Such behaviors can come across as cold, distant or stuck-up — everything people with social anxiety are not. They’re just nervous.
“We think those things are what kept us safe and kept us from being judged. But in fact, those are the very things that maintain the anxiety and keep it going for the next social interactions,” Hendriksen said.
3. Realize it gets better after the freak out period
When you face something you fear, like a social gathering, it’s all systems go, Hendriksen noted. Your heart races, your Inner Critic screams “You can’t do this!” and there’s a strong urge to leave.
“That moment is the cue — this is the chance to stretch and grow and to use your skills and to see what happens. Wait out that freak out period,” she said. “After it peaks, there’s this slide down the other side and our anxiety will slowly decrease.”
Keep trying and keep showing up, Hendriksen advised. It’s worth the investment of being willing to feel anxious for a little while in order to reap the benefits of feeling much less anxious over time.
4. You don’t have to be the smoothest person in the room
Feeling the pressure tell to say exactly the right thing and charm everybody is counterproductive because it can make a person freeze up and not say anything.
“Instead of being your best self, it is OK just to be yourself,” Hendriksen said. “It’s OK to make mistakes, have pauses in conversations, lose your train of thought. As long as you are being warm and kind and showing curiosity and connecting with the other people around you, that’s what matters.”
Remember, blushing, making mistakes, being vulnerable and authentic shows you’re human and makes you more likable, she added.
5. Accept the shenanigans of your anxious body
Embrace your racing heart and sweaty palms without judgment, Hendriksen said. A bit of self-compassion will help put some space between you and the anxious thoughts. She says,
“When people are in the throes of social anxiety, it’s like being under a waterfall: Worries and fears pound down and churn all around. But being mindful puts you behind the waterfall: The worries are still there, but there is distance. You can observe them without having to take them that seriously.”
6. You’ll feel less anxious by living your life
Patients often tell Hendriksen they want to be less anxious first so they can finally go out and do things they’ve been avoiding like traveling, seeing friends or dating. But that’s actually backward. Put action first by creating a challenge list of things that scare you a little. Do the easiest things first, then work your way up to more challenging tasks. They become less scary as you go.
Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is one of the most common mental disorders, so if you have it, there’s hope. The tough part is being able to ask for help. If your social silence has gone beyond shyness to a point of severe depression and isolation, you need to see a doctor.