In a therapy group for young teens that I was leading, there was a very shy girl name Jocelyn (not her real name). When Jocelyn came to her first group meeting she refused to introduce herself. Sitting at the table with other girls, she looked down at her lap and slouched forward, her hair hanging like dark ribbons covering her face.
Jocelyn met the diagnostic criteria for what is called social anxiety disorder.
Like many with social anxiety, Jocelyn was very unhappy with how isolated this made her feel. She realized that she was missing out on enjoying friendships, school events, involvement in sports and clubs, and so much else.
But the fear of taking those initial steps to alter her behavior outside the therapy room continued to hold her back. Fear is like that – a heavy ball and chain that often makes progress in any direction seem impossible.
So it was no surprise that after the first month in group therapy Jocelyn had not changed a great deal. Despite the occasional smile when another group member made a joke, or a quick glance in my direction when I had said something that hit home, she mainly sat silently through every group meeting.
Several months later, however, when her involvement with group therapy was coming to a close, Jocelyn was a very different teen. She had become so gregarious she could have gotten a job as a greeter at Harrah’s Casino.
By this time in therapy she felt comfortable arriving early and spending ten minutes prior to group hitting up the staff to buy coupon books for her school. Her confidence had grown such that on one occasion she attended group wearing a plastic mustache and western hat – just to see if she could make other children laugh.
Most importantly, Jocelyn began to talk more freely about her life, the ups and downs of school, and the struggles that went on at home.
What had happened to create this change?
That, my friend, is the million dollar question. The transformation this young girl experienced is not unusual. There are well understood steps that nearly anyone can take to gain control over their social anxiety. If you have social anxiety, or are simply very shy, these steps are for you – and describing these steps is what I’ll be focused on today.
But before we get to looking at how you can beat social anxiety, let’s take a quick look at how widespread this form of anxiety has become, and the sort of impact it makes on one’s life.
How Big A Problem Is Social Anxiety?
Almost 18 percent of adults in the United States have some form of anxiety (that is nearly 40 million people). Of these, social anxiety is the most common fear that people acknowledge themselves to be struggling (although there are many other forms of anxiety including phobias, OCD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and more).. Approximately 7 percent of adults struggle with social anxiety (sufficiently severe that it significantly interferes with their lives).
Nearly one third of adults continue to have social anxiety for ten years or longer, and most never turn to a mental health professional for help.
The impact of social anxiety is surprising. You might be tempted to think that it simply means the person who struggles with this fear stays away from parties, and has fewer friends than other people who are more outgoing.
It goes well beyond those mild constraints. When social anxiety takes root early in life it can lead to being ostracized by peers.
Children who are strongly marginalized early in life tend to remain at the social margins of their peer group throughout their years in grammar school, junior high and even high school. These children also end up being a much greater risk for school dropout, teen-age pregnancy, drug/alcohol abuse and delinquent behavior.
The bottom line is that social anxiety can be life changing. For adults who have had an otherwise healthy psychological history this form of anxiety robs them of living life more fully. They have fewer opportunities to develop a variety of friends and fewer times of experiencing a sense of belonging within their community.
For children, social anxiety deprives them of important life experiences that prepare them for navigating relationships in adulthood. Children also miss out of the confidence building experience of being appreciated by peers, and successfully finding common ground with those that come from a different background.
The impact of social anxiety goes beyond being a slight inconvenience. For many, it is a major obstacle to fulfilling their potential.
Is There A Way To Cure Social Anxiety?
Treatment for social anxiety is remarkably effective, and simple. But I want to be sure to be very clear. Although the process of overcoming social anxiety is simple, for many it is also very difficult. Just as running a marathon is simple, but difficult.
For the most part the treatment of social anxiety involves learning two new skill sets: social skills, and relaxation skills. After learning these skills, then another phase of therapy takes place: practicing in real life settings. That practice must occur over and over again. That is how the anxiety is finally stomped out, and likewise how social skills become second nature.
You can do this – nearly everybody can do this, but it takes time and a lot of persistence.
What’s more, you may be able to do this without seeing a therapist. Certainly it is helpful to have a counselor who coaches you through the steps. But many people will find that even without that help, they are able to make progress on their own.
The main idea is this – if you learn the skills needed to successfully manage social situations, and combine these with the skills needed to control your anxiety, you can start to experience rewarding social interactions in the very type of situations that had previously caused you to be uncomfortable.
As you continue to have more of these positive experiences, a sense of confidence begins to take root. Social skills continue to grow. Anxiety continues to get less and less.
This entire process may take a few months, or it could take longer. Either way it’s important to understand that it does not require perfection, only a reasonable plan, and heaps of persistence.
HOW ABOUT THE PLAN STAN?
Let’s look at the specifics of what a plan for overcoming social anxiety might look like.
I mentioned this before, but it is worth repeating. Becoming good at navigating social situations is a skill, and like any skill it takes practice. The more you practice the easier it becomes to go into social situations and not become overly anxious.
In fact, with enough practice you will eventually start to enjoy social activities that you now avoid.
The less you practice, however, the slower your progress. Sometimes the result of practicing very little is that you begin to feel that progress is impossible.
That can be discouraging, and might even cause you to give up altogether.
Don’t go there. Practice enough so that you make progress, so that you advance enough to keep your motivation up.
It can also be a huge help to have one or two people that support you. That way, when progress is slow, there will be someone to cheer you on.
Don’t give up and assume that this is just the way life has to be – that’s not true. Now is the time to punch anxiety squarely in the face. Send it running. You can do this. I have worked with many people who have succeeded in overcoming anxiety. For most of these people, their success was mostly a matter of how much work, and persistence, they were willing to put into the battle. And yes, many also had support from family and friends along the way (but not all).
If you are tired of missing out on life because of your anxiety, and you are ready to open the door to a new future, the following guideline is for you.
The most effective approach to taming social anxiety is based on the same proven method used by therapists to help people control most anxieties. This strategy involves gradually immersing yourself in those situations you fear. Doing this in a well thought out way, starting with small social challenges and slowly building up to more difficult ones works best.
And, as scary as this may sound to someone with social anxiety, it really does work.
Below are six simple steps that walk you through the process that can help you break the grip of social anxiety. Put some thought into how you want to approach each step. Expect it to be difficult, but expect to see progress as well.
When you run into a setback (everyone does), take a moment to regroup: then charge ahead once again. Before you know it, you will find that social gatherings no longer create the fear that they had once evoked. Later, after basking in the glory of your success, send me an email: would love to hear from you.
SIX STEP PLAN FOR BEATING SOCIAL ANXIETY
CHOOSE SOME TYPE OF GROUP SITUATION THAT NORMALLY CAUSES MILD TO MODERATE SOCIAL ANXIETY. MAKE PLANS TO ATTEND.
Now identify the specific concerns you have about going to that event (e.g., “People will think I’m odd”, “Others will reject me”, “I won’t have anything interesting to say”).
Take a moment to judge how realistic these worries really are (probably unrealistic, or at least greatly exaggerated). You may find it helpful to use a form that organizes your thoughts.
Write down the worry, and next to that write a sentence describing how realistic that concern really is when looked at objectively. Review the list frequently prior to attending whatever gathering you have in mind.
SELECT A MODEST GOAL FOR THE START.
To begin this process you want to start by going to a social event that would normally cause you to have mild to moderate social anxiety. The more severe your anxiety the more modest your goal should be. For example, if you are going to a party and you only know the host/hostess, your goal might be to attend for 30 minutes and briefly meet three or four people.
LEARN BASIC SKILLS TO HELP REDUCE FEELINGS OF ANXIETY.
One of the most common of these skills involves taking a deep breath, then slowly exhaling while imagining a relaxing scene.
Sounds simple doesn’t it? It is, and the more you practice the more effective this technique becomes. The trick to making this technique work well is to practice it for ten minutes a day.
Find a comfortable chair and take a seat. Once you are settled in, try to vividly imagine the social setting you have chosen to attend. Let your anxiety build until you feel at least moderately uncomfortable, then take a slow deep breath. Don’t hold it, but instead slowly exhale.
At the same time that you are doing this you should be imagining a relaxing scene. Put yourself as deeply into that scene as your imagination allows.
For example, if you imagined yourself being on a beach you would then fill in the details. The color of the sand, water and sky. Likewise, you would feel the warmth of the sun on your shoulders, the warm grainy sand under your feet, the sound of waves, and the smell of salt air. Use as many senses as possible (the sights, sounds, feel, smell).
Take a few more slow deep breaths, and when the anxiety has largely ebbed away, go back to thinking of the social setting again. Let the anxiety rise, then shift back to the deep breathing/relaxing scene exercise.
Repeat several times, always ending your practice session at the point where you are thinking of the relaxing scene. With a little practice the relaxation response will become second nature when you take a deep breath.
LEARN HOW TO START A CONVERSATION.
Keep in mind, when people first meet they expect the conversation to be superficial. You are in the process of learning about one another, determining if there are ‘points of connection.’ These are areas of mutual interests. This might involve similarities in how you spend your free time, or where you grew up, professional goals, the schools you attended or the schools your children attend.
Many socially anxious people struggle with the thought that they must have something unusually interesting to offer in the conversation. That’s terrific when that is the case, but for most mortals it is a matter of exchanging pleasantries in a way that shows genuine interest and warmth.
Now let’s look at the practical side of starting a conversation. The list of ways to do this is nearly endless. Often the way you decide to start will depend upon the specific setting in which you find yourself. Even so, here are some softballs that work in many circumstances.
Say something pleasant:
“What a great dinner, I especially liked the cheesecake”
“I thought that was a terrific talk, what did you think?”
“What a beautiful sunset, it reminds me of the times I’ve seen the sun reflecting off the clouds when flying in my personal jet”… OK, no need to go that far.
Mention a mutual friend or acquaintance
“How did you and David meet?”
“Isn’t that great that Rebecca got that promotion?”
Talk about the weather (I know, this is a tired overture, but it works)
“I’ll be glad when the Fall weather arrives. Even though I love jet skiing on the lake, nothing beats camping in the Autumn time”
“This weather is gorgeous isn’t it? I wish it would stay this way all year.”
Compliment the person on something (but don’t overdo it)
“Great job coaching the soccer team this year. I really appreciate all the time and effort you put into it.”
“Beautiful house. I especially like the way you’ve landscaped your backyard. Was it difficult to find that many plastic flamingos and yard gnomes?”
Ask about their motives or background – stick with me, this will make sense
“Oh, so you are a police officer. What attracted you to that line of work?”
“I can tell from your Oakland Raiders cap, jersey, and beer mug that you are a Raiders Nation fan. How did you become such a big Raiders backer?”
“That was a delicious dinner. How did you learn to cook so well?”
These and many other topics offer easy opportunities to start a conversation. The key to being able to effectively use these themes is to practice ahead of time.
Practice ahead of time? How weird is that? OK, maybe, but if you practice asking these questions when you are alone you will find it much easier to ask them in a very natural way when you are in one of those social settings that make you anxious.
The ‘take home’ message…… go ahead and practice!
Important Side Note
Before moving on, keep in mind that you don’t have to ‘get it just right’ to start a conversation. What you say is only a small part of making a first impression. How you present yourself is much more important.
That means you want to pull your shoulders back, smile, and look the person in the eye (don’t stare, that’s creepy, but do have good eye contact). Moreover, as you talk don’t be afraid to modulate your voice, and show a little enthusiasm and warmth.
Do the things I’ve just listed and you’ll become a pro at conversing with others. Honest.
If you would like more information on starting conversations you can look at this book
LEARN HOW TO END A CONVERSATION.
It helps to have an excuse for ending conversations. Yes, you must have an exit plan.
Without an exit plan you will feel trapped, and if you feel trapped you are left with counting on the other person to end the conversation, or having it die a slow lingering death.
Ending a conversation is even easier than starting one. For example, you can end the conversation by saying “I need to go ask (host/hostess) about something, but it’s a pleasure to have met you.”
Or, “I think I’ll go freshen my drink. I hope you enjoy the party.”
Or, “Gosh, it’s getting late. I need to call home and make sure the babysitter isn’t having a party at my house again.”
Or, “It’s been great talking with you. I hope we have a chance to meet again.”
Be sure to memorize and rehearse some exit lines prior to attending the social event you have targeted as your first goal. I know, you’re thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m supposed to rehearse an exit strategy?”
Well, yes. Being nervous, and in the middle of a conversation, is not the time to test your creative social skills. Rehearse your exit pitch.
This will save you from staying in a conversation way longer than you would like. It will also save you from saying something you regret such as “My bladder is talking to me right now. Well, actually screaming. So I’ll be running along. Tootles.” Rehearse one or two excuses that provide for a graceful exit.
AFTER ACTION REPORT
After you have attended the social gathering, and are back home feeling more relaxed, take a minute to review how things went.
Identify where you did well. Then ask yourself how you can build on that success?
Also ask yourself where you did not do as well as you realistically expected. Come up with one or two things that would help you improve in this area (keep in mind, often it is just a matter of more practice).
Then select a new social challenge and get ready to grow ever more confident.
As with Step 1, using a form to organize your thoughts can be very helpful (click the button to the side for check list).
Putting social anxiety in it’s place is as simple as following the six steps we just reviewed.
It’s the same way that I helped the little girl in group therapy (mentioned at the start of this post) overcame her fears.
She learned to relax enough to face her fears. She also learned a handful of key social skills. Once these two steps were completed she was ready to create new positive experiences by forcing herself to interact with other children.
That little girl learned something important: interacting with others did not make the world fall apart. More importantly, she learned that other children enjoyed her company.
The same thing can happen with you.
The six steps I’ve outlined for overcoming social anxiety really are effective. Do they work for everyone? No, but they do work for most people.
This means they very likely will also work for you.
There are times when it may be necessary for you to enlist the help of a therapist in order to fine-tune this approach. Or, it may be that you simply want the benefit of having an expert to help you along the way.
Whether you use a DIY approach, or work with a therapist, the main thing is to take the leap and begin to free yourself from the burden of social anxiety.
Life is too short to be held back by your fears. There are people whose lives would be better for knowing you. But that won’t happen if you let social anxiety hold you back.
Don’t wait, don’t make excuses, don’t put it off for another day and a better time. Take the plunge. Jump in and get started on a new chapter of life.