“For some people social anxiety is pretty pervasive,” said Justin Weeks, Ph.D, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Center for Evaluation and Treatment of Anxiety at Ohio University. For others, the anxiety arises in specific social situations, he said.
The most common example of social anxiety is anxiousness about public speaking. Making small talk, eating in front of others, and using public restrooms also can trigger worry and unease for some.
Some people engage in what Weeks called “covert avoidance.” For example, they might go to parties. But instead of mingling, they hang back in the kitchen, he said.
Social anxiety is defined as anxiety anticipating a social situation, or anxiety during or after that situation, Weeks said. “At the heart of social anxiety is the fear of evaluation.”
And it’s not just negative evaluation that people worry about; it’s positive evaluation, too.
Weeks’s research suggests that people perceive negative consequences from a social situation whether they do poorly or well. (Here’s one study.) For instance, people who do well at work might worry about the social repercussions of outshining their coworkers, he said.
In other words, people with social anxiety simply don’t want to stand out. “They want to be as inconspicuous as possible.”
Anxiety about social situations lies on a spectrum. “The consensus among the experts is that shyness and social anxiety disorder are all part of one continuum,” Weeks said. “It’s a question of severity.”
How much does social anxiety interfere with your life?
For instance, you might wish that you were more comfortable when interacting with people, Weeks said. But “you don’t feel like it’s holding you back,” in terms of your personal or professional goals.
“Social anxiety is more severe.” A person might avoid going to college because schools require passing a public speaking course and interacting with new people. They might want a romantic relationship but worry so much about rejection that they avoid potential partners.
How to Overcome Your Social Anxiety
Below, Weeks shared his suggestions for overcoming social anxiety.
1. Try a self-help manual.
2. Work with a therapist.
If social anxiety is stopping you from doing things you want or need to do, or you haven’t had much success with self-help, seek professional help. Find a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. You can start your search here.
3. Practice deep breathing every day.
It’s helpful to engage in deep breathing before an anxiety-provoking social situation, Weeks said. But practice this technique every day. This way it becomes second nature, and you don’t hyperfocus on deep breathing and miss an entire conversation, he said. Here’s more on deep breathing.
4. Create an exposure hierarchy.
An exposure hierarchy is a list — akin to a ladder — where you write down situations that cause you anxiety, in order of severity. Then you perform the easiest behavior, and keep moving up the list.
To create your own hierarchy, list 10 anxiety-provoking situations, and rate them on a 100-point scale (zero being no anxiety; 100 being severe anxiety). Your list might start with asking a stranger for directions and end with joining Toastmasters.
The Google Books preview of the social anxiety book is one place to get started on coping with social anxiety. You may also want to fill out the the fear and avoidance hierarchy worksheet to help you get started.
Additionally, this helpful worksheet offers an exercise that helps you explore your social anxiety.
5. Create objective goals.
People tend to disqualify the positive when they feel anxious, Weeks said. They might do well, even great, but because of their anxious feelings, they see their performance as abysmal. That’s why therapists encourage clients to create objective behavioral goals, he said.
These are behaviors that anyone in the room would be able to observe. It doesn’t matter how you feel or whether you’re blushing or sweating (which you can’t control anyway) in a social situation.
For instance, if you’re working in a group setting, the objective behavior would be to make three comments, Weeks said.
This also gives you a good barometer for judging your progress. Again, you’re not focusing on whether you felt nervous. Rather, you’re focusing on whether you performed the actual behavior.
Also, avoid focusing on others’ reactions. It doesn’t matter how your colleagues received your idea in the meeting. What matters is that you actually spoke up. It doesn’t matter whether a girl or guy said yes to your dinner invite. What matters is that you actually asked. It doesn’t matter how your child’s teacher reacted when you declined to volunteer for yet another school trip. What matters is that you were assertive and respected your own needs.
As Weeks said, “You did what you wanted to in a situation. We can’t control what another person is going to do.”
6. Keep a rational outlook.
Dispute both bleak thoughts that undermine your performance and fuel your anxiety, and equally unrealistic thoughts that are irrationally positive, Weeks said.
For instance, if you’re giving a speech, you might initially think, “I’m going to bomb.” But if you’ve given speeches before and done well, then this isn’t a rational or realistic perspective. You might say instead, “I’ve given speeches before. I’m prepared, and I’ll give it my best shot.”
If you’re asking someone out, it’s not rational to think, “They’re definitely going to say yes.” But it is rational to consider, “They might,” according to Weeks.
If social anxiety is sabotaging your goals and stopping you from living the life you want, seek help and try the above strategies. Social anxiety is highly treatable, Weeks said. You can get better, and grow in the process.
Hope, DA, Heimberg, RG, & Turk, CL. (2010). Managing Social Anxiety, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press.
Interview with Justin Weeks, Ph.D, Center for Evaluation and Treatment of Anxiety at Ohio University, 2016.
Toastmasters. (2018). Retrieved from www.toastmasters.org
Weeks JW1, Howell AN. (2012). The bivalent fear of evaluation model of social anxiety: further integrating findings on fears of positive and negative evaluation. Cogn Behav Ther., 41, 83-95. doi: 10.1080/16506073.2012.661452.