For over a decade, social anxiety put my life on hold. My inability to relax around people and feel free to live in the moment was holding back my relationships, my job prospects and my enjoyment of life. The beta blockers I’d been prescribed weren’t the answer I was looking for. So after thoroughly researching social anxiety, its causes and ways to reduce it, I adopted four core psychological tactics for overcoming it long-term.
It was a long road with plenty of bumps. But I’m pleased to say that my social anxiety has reduced to a level where I can go where I want and do the things I want to do. I no longer have to rely on coping strategies, avoidance or medication to get through the day. In fact, people would be surprised to know social anxiety affects me at all.
If social anxiety is holding you back, I recommend putting a goal-driven, long-term strategy in place with tactics to address the negative ways of thinking, low self-esteem and hopelessness that drive social anxiety. Here are the four psychological tactics that helped me on the road to recovery:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy. I was as cynical as anyone about how writing down negative thoughts, working out a ladder of anxious situations and other CBT exercises would help. The sense of dread I felt walking around the shops or catching a bus was too acute to imagine feeling anything else. But recognizing that it was negative thoughts driving my uncomfortable feelings was the light switching on moment for me. It was the light I desperately needed to see at the end of the tunnel that gave me hope that a better way of living existed. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it can take years to make significant improvements. But I can vouch from my own experience that if you do routinely challenge negative thoughts when they arrive and replace them with objective responses, over time, it can become a natural way of thinking. Rewiring your brain to think in an objective, positive manner is possible, with practice, patience and the will to self-improve.
- Exercise daily. Before initiating my plan to beating social anxiety, I spent all my time locked in my room, playing video games, binge-watching TV and wishing my life would get better. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get better sitting on my couch. I knew that getting in shape and exercising daily needed to be part of my routine.Walking around a gym was too intimidating to contemplate in the early days. So, as with every area in which you want to improve, I started small: lifting weights, doing pushups and situps in my room and taking 20-minute runs around the block.There’s no reason you can’t do the same. YouTube is filled with yoga videos and workouts you can do from home. Thirty minutes is all it takes to start releasing those feel-good endorphins, which will raise your mood and feel like you’re doing something productive to get better. Continue to exercise daily and you’ll start toning up, losing weight (or gaining it if, like me, that’s your goal) and feeling good about yourself. Your self-esteem and self-confidence will naturally rise as a result.
- Pursue goals in other areas to experience the satisfaction that comes from making improvements.
It took me months before I started truly feeling the improvements of thinking more objectively and exercising daily to take hold. Success won’t come overnight. There’s a lot of rewiring and changes in modes of behavior you’re going to have to do before you really feel like your social anxiety is ebbing away. You need to develop a mindset for pursuing goals over the long term. Plan for where you want to be years in the future and then plot the course to get there. Pursuing long-term goals is something you should start practicing in all areas of your life. If you want to advance in your career, start working on the skills or developing the knowledge that will earn you that promotion. Want to impress future dates? Buy a cookbook and start brushing up your culinary skills.A major hurdle for social phobics is our discomfort speaking in front of groups of people. A great side project is to start working on your public speaking skills. If introverts in the tech world and people with speech impediments can become in-demand public speakers, why can’t you?
As always, it’s wise to start small and then progress to bigger stages. You could start with plugging in a headset and talking to people when playing video games online. Then go up a level and start using an anonymous video chat service to have short conversations with strangers. Then start studying TEDTalks and practicing your own talks on your favorite topic. Then when you’re ready, head to a local Toastmasters event.
No matter how scared you feel or how bad you think your talk went, I can tell you from personal experience that the folks at Toastmasters have seen it all before. The only reaction you’ll get is their support and advice on how to make the next talk better.
- Hobbies with at least moderate social interaction. The more time you spend around other people, the less threatening they’ll be. This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to sit on buses all day or endlessly walking around the shopping mall. Find opportunities to engage with other people in a way that’s not forced. Control how much, or how little, you want to interact. These activities could include attending yoga classes, a local running club or, my personal favorite, hiking. Check out meetup.com for events in your local area. Couchsurfing.org often has events in most cities which you can attend even if you’re not a traveler, and the people who go to these events are always very welcoming, in my experience. Create your own playbook of tactics and decide where to fit these tactics in.
Social anxiety is a deeply personal condition. Its severity varies extensively between individuals. As such, the path to recovery isn’t the same for everyone. Your playbook for beating it might need to include medication, group therapy or assisted gradual exposure. As always, you should always consult your doctor or another medical professional for expert advice on the best route to take.