In this article, I will help you overcome social anxiety for good. Connecting with other people and forming loving and trusting relationships can bring us immense joy and happiness. However, for some people, talking to new people, asking for a date or speaking in public creates fear and anxiety.
In this article, I will explain what social anxiety is and cover the typical symptoms. I will also uncover the 4 components to social anxiety. Knowing and understanding these 4 components is key to how you overcome social anxiety.
I’ll then cover 8 of the most effective ways to help you overcome social anxiety. Keep reading as you learn how to be socially confident and develop wonderful friendships and relationships.
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What Is Social Anxiety?
It’s a fear of social environments and your ability to perform well in those environments. This includes anxiety about being judged, watched or negatively evaluated. It’s also the fear of being rejected, embarrassed or scrutinized in social situations.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
The symptoms of social anxiety include:
- Being afraid to ask questions.
- Difficulty talking to people that you don’t know.
- Believing that people don’t like you.
- Believing that other people are better than you.
- Avoiding social events.
- Avoiding crowds.
- Feeling uncomfortable talking to authority figures such as your manager at work.
- Making more mistakes when other people are watching you.
- Being silent in meetings.
- Not wanting to be the center of attention. For example, on your birthday.
- Avoiding tough phone calls. For example, sales calls, following up on an interview or asking someone out on a date.
Where Does Social Anxiety Come From?
Thousands of years ago, when we lived as part of a tribe, our survival depended on being in the tribe. If the tribe rejected you and forced you to live on your own, you wouldn’t survive.
Although being rejected is no longer a life or death situation, your brain is wired to believe that survival depends on being accepted by others.
How Many People Suffer with Social Anxiety?
About 12% of people experience social anxiety that significantly impacts their life. It affects their happiness, their ability to do things and hampers their career.
Many more people suffer from social anxiety in certain interpersonal situations, but are fine in others. So whether you have a mild case of social anxiety or one that is more severe, this article will help you.
The 4 Components to Social Anxiety
Social anxiety (and other types of anxiety) are created and maintained by 4 components. These are physiological, cognitive, emotional and behavioral.
This is the physical symptoms of social anxiety. These symptoms include:
- A racing heart.
- Sweaty palms.
- Butterflies in your stomach.
- Shaky hands.
- Shaky voice.
- Feeling faint.
As these symptoms are physical, other people could potentially see them. However, you will notice them far more than other people will. Most people will be totally unaware of any physical symptoms you’re experiencing.
These physiological symptoms happen during the social anxiety situation. You may notice some minor physical symptoms when thinking about it beforehand. However, it’s much more pronounced during the social situation.
Cognitive or cognitions is the technical term for thoughts. It’s about what is going on in your mind. This includes negative thoughts, excessive thoughts, and thinking the same thoughts repeatedly. This is called rumination.
The cognitive component also includes how you imagine the social situation in your mind. Are you imagining it going badly? Imagining flunking a presentation or being rejected by another person?.
Unlike the physical symptoms that only happen during a social anxiety situation, these cognitive components can happen both before and during any social situation. So you can experience the cognitive components of social anxiety long before a social situation takes place.
This is crucial to understand! If you can reduce the amount of thinking and negative imagery about a social situation before it happens, then you will be more calm, relaxed and confident in that social situation.
The cognitive components (how you think and imagine) will generate distinct feelings and emotions. These include feeling very self-conscious in social situations. Or feeling afraid of being watched, judged, or embarrassed.
The emotional components can also occur before a social situation. You might worry about a specific social event long before it happens.
This is doing or not doing a certain behavior that other people might notice.
Social anxiety behaviors could include avoiding eye contact, fluffing up certain words, being quiet in meetings or making mistakes when others are watching you.
Just as important is NOT doing a certain behavior or action. For example, not attending a party, avoiding presentations or not making tough phone calls.
This component also includes using alcohol or drugs to calm your nerves, so you feel better and act more confidently in social situations.
The behavioral component only occurs during the social anxiety situation. The only exception is using alcohol or drugs beforehand to get the desired state by the time the social situation arises.
How to Overcome Social Anxiety
To overcome social anxiety effectively, it is essential that you address the physiological, cognitive, emotional and behavioral components. The ways I’m about to cover will help you do that.
1. Slow and Deep Breathing
Breathing slowly and deeply will reduce the physiological symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms or shaky hands that I mentioned earlier.
When you’re feeling anxious, you breathe more quickly. This causes higher levels of oxygen to flood your body. This can throw it off balance. Your body will compensate by increasing your heart rate, tensing muscles and displaying the other physical symptoms of anxiety that I mentioned earlier.
So breathing slowly and deeply will help regain the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body and reduce the physical symptoms of social anxiety.
Here is a simple and effective deep breathing exercise.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest
- Breathe in for 4 seconds, noticing your hand on the stomach rising, but not the hand on your chest. This ensures that you are using your diaphragm to breathe.
- Hold the breath for 2 seconds
- Breathe out over 6 seconds, noticing the hand on your stomach moving inwards, rather than the hand on your chest.
- Repeat for a few minutes until you feel calmer and more centered.
Deep breathing is a highly effective way to reduce social anxiety in the moment. It’s a “band-aid” as it doesn’t address the causes. It merely reduces the symptoms. The other ways that I’m about to cover will help address the causes of social anxiety. However, deep breathing is very effective and a great way to calm your nerves.
2. Change Negative Thoughts
This and the 2 ways that follow will help you overcome social anxiety by addressing the cognitive component. This is the way you think and imagine social situations. Changing the cognitive component will indirectly influence the emotional component too.
Negative thoughts lead to uncomfortable feelings, and this causes social anxiety. Therefore, identifying and changing these thoughts is a great place to start for long-term positive change.
It starts by knowing what these thoughts are. The best way to do this is to write out the negative thoughts on paper. Getting those thoughts out of your head and onto paper will help you see these thoughts much more clearly.
Here are some examples.
- I don’t know what to say,
- What if they don’t like me?
- What if they find me boring?
You can now analyze these negative thoughts, challenge them, and identify alternative positive thoughts.
For “I don’t know what to say”, you can identify and memorize some basic questions to ask whenever you need too. Questions about their career, hobbies, holidays or kids work well. People love talking about these things.
The thought “What if they don’t like me?” could be changed to “If they don’t like me, I’ll congratulate myself for trying and move on to someone else.”
You could change “What if they find me boring?” to “I know that I’m interesting and that will come across to other like-minded people”.
The alternative thoughts don’t have to be super-positive. However, they should give you more options and possibilities.
3. Challenge Unhelpful Thinking Styles
This is similar to changing negative thoughts, but it goes a little deeper. It involves identifying and then changing the underlying thoughts and beliefs. The ones behind the specific negative thoughts that occur in different social situations.
Behind all these negative thoughts are some underlying ways of thinking. These are known as cognitive distortions or thinking traps. There are 3 cognitive distortions that influence social anxiety. These are mind reading, fortune telling and catastrophizing. Let’s look at these in greater detail.
Mind reading is knowing what other people are thinking when there is no evidence to prove it. Here are 2 examples.
- She hates me.
- Others think I’m stupid.
It’s impossible to read another person’s mind. We have no way of knowing exactly what someone else is thinking. We may get clues from their facial expression or what they say, but we don’t know for sure.
The solution is to be a detective and disprove these thoughts by asking questions. A good question is “how do I know? For example, “how do I know she hates me?” or “how do I know that others think I’m stupid?”
Or ask “what did this person say or do that makes me think that?”
In most cases, it will be very difficult to answer these questions. That’s a good thing! Not being able to answer them is proof that these thoughts are not an accurate reflection of what is actually happening.
When you know that these thoughts are not true or accurate, it’s much easier to let them go.
Fortune telling is predicting the future negatively. It’s believing that the future will turn out badly. Here are 2 examples.
- I know I’ll mess up my interview.
- No one will talk to me at this party.
Being a questioning detective is great for disproving these thoughts too. For example, “How do I know that I will mess up this interview?”
You could challenge the second example by saying “No one?” How do you know that no one will talk to you at this party? It’s impossible to predict that.
Catastrophizing is thinking or imagining worst-case scenarios. It’s magnifying errors, fears and imperfections. For example, “If I flunk this presentation, my life is over”.
As with the previous cognitive distortions, the solution is to question it. You could simply say “really?” and see what new thoughts arise.
Or ask, “what exactly will change in my life if I flunked this presentation? It’s unlikely you would lose your job over it. What would change, if anything?
How about asking the opposite positive question? For example, “what would happen to my life if I did an amazing presentation?
Questioning and challenging any thoughts within these thinking traps will help you overcome social anxiety by dealing with the underlying thoughts.
There are 12 thinking traps or cognitive distortions in total. The others are less relevant to social anxiety. However, if they interest you, then this article covers all of them.
The 12 Common Thinking Traps that Steal Your Happiness
4. Change Your Internal Self-Talk
What you say to yourself and how you say it, influences the energy you give out. Other people pick up on this energy unconsciously.
Changing What You Say
Common phrases that people think or say to themselves during social situations include:
- People don’t like me.
- People don’t think I’m interesting or funny.
- I can’t wait to get out of here.
- This is uncomfortable.
- This is really terrible!
How do you think self-talk like this will influence the energy you give out? Certainly not in a good way. Imagine the most socially confident person who you know. Would they say these things to themselves? Highly unlikely!
How you change negative self-talk is similar to how you change negative thoughts. So the information covered earlier in this article will help you. This includes analyzing any negative self-talk, challenging it and replacing it with new positive self-talk.
Here are some examples of positive self-talk to replace the examples mentioned above.
- I’m a good person and I know that some people will like me.
- I know that I’m interesting and this will come across to other people.
- I’ll enjoy this social situation and I’ll make new friends and I’ll stay here until the end.
- I have felt uncomfortable before, but I know that when I take action it feels great.
“This is terrible”, might require a question to challenge and change it. For example, “how exactly is this terrible and what could I do to make it better?”
So if you can’t come up with alternative positive phrases, then ask questions to challenge the negative self-talk instead.
Changing How You Say It
As important as what you say is the tone and volume used to say it. Although this self-talk is in your own head and no one actually hears it, there is a tone and volume that you can change.
Negative self-talk often sounds very authoritarian. It sounds like a teacher or parent. If that’s the case, make the tone more friendly. Change the voice to your best friend, your favorite celebrity, a comedian or even a naughty French waitress! Try it now. It will feel different!
Although self-talk is silent, your perception of how loud it is varies immensely. When you’re relaxed, chilling out, any self-talk seems very quiet in your mind. When you’re in a social situation that feels uncomfortable, that voice in your head will seem very loud.
However, you can change the volume and it’s easy to do. Let’s try it now. Imagine you have a remote control and you’re pressing the button that reduces the volume. Notice the self-talk getting quieter in your mind as you do that.
You can change the tone and volume of positive self-talk too. Make it sound like Tony Robbins is saying it! Now make the positive self-taught louder and more exciting.
Using positive self-talk regularly and especially during social situations will increase the belief in your ability to overcome social anxiety. It increases the belief that you are confident and comfortable in social situations.
You then radiate positive energy. You have a distinct presence and more confident body language. Other people pick up on this. They will naturally want to talk to you and will feel good in your company.
I highly recommend using positive self-talk before and definitely during any social situation. I’m confident it will make a tremendous difference in helping you overcome social anxiety.
How to Tame Your Negative Internal Voice
5. Creative Visualization
Creative Visualization is a powerful way to help you overcome social anxiety. It’s part of the cognitive component, but focuses on your imagination rather than your thoughts.
Are you aware of imagining certain social situations going badly? This is very common and unconscious to many people. However, it’s a big contributor to your feelings of social anxiety.
To turn this around, imagine or visualize each social situation going perfectly. Imagine your presentation going really well. Or having a wonderful conversation with a new person. How about imagining going to your manager to ask for a pay rise and getting it!
When visualizing, bring in other senses such as hearing and feeling. When imagining a great presentation, hear the audience clapping or cheering. Also notice your positive self-talk and how you now feel. If relevant, bring in taste and touch too.
Finally, make your visualization as big as possible. Imagine watching this on an enormous cinema screen.
10 Steps to Transform Your Creative Visualization Skills
A Powerful Creative Visualization Exercise for Rapid Change
6. Focus More on Other People
We have addressed the physical symptoms of social anxiety with the deep breathing exercise. I then shared 3 ways to help deal with the thoughts that create this anxiety in the first place. I’ve also covered creative visualization to combat imagining social situations going badly.
The next 3 ways will focus on how to overcome social anxiety by changing your behaviour. These are about taking different actions in social situations.
The first one is focussing more on others. When you do this, you take the focus off yourself and get out of your own head. Your brain cannot think about you and someone else at the same time. Focussing on others also quietens the internal dialogue or self-talk in your head.
To focus more on others, become curious and genuinely interested in what they want to say. An effective way to do this is to ask questions.
As I mentioned earlier, come up with a list of basic questions that you can ask. Include questions about their career, family, hobbies or holidays. People love talking about their favorite subject, which is themselves!
Be careful not to overdo it with the questions. Otherwise it will seem more like an interview or interrogation exercise! I’ve done this myself in the past. Instead, share a little about you, but make the primary focus of the conversation to be about them.
You want to be totally present with the other person. This is not thinking or worrying about what to say next. It’s not feeling annoyed about, or regretting something that you’ve just said. It’s listening intently and being totally engaged with the other person.
Anything you can do to help the other person feel better will be beneficial to both of you. Giving compliments is a wonderful way to do that.
With around 12% of people experiencing social anxiety regularly, this means that every 9th person you speak to is likely to feel the same way as you. Giving compliments and helping them feel relaxed in your company will help them feel more comfortable with you.
7. Set Goals and Intentions
Most people go into social situations with no specific goal in mind. They then feel anxious and the social event is a disappointment. This happens time and time again and you feel that you are not making any progress in your efforts to overcome social anxiety.
Setting some goals and intentions before each social situation can help you change things for the better.
Here are some simple goals for an office party.
- I will talk to 5 new people at the office party.
- I will talk to 4 people that I already know and find something new about them.
- I will enjoy myself and feel good, regardless of what other people say or do.
And two examples for other situations
- I will ask a question in the next meeting.
- I will always say hi to people in authority, when I pass them in the corridor.
When you achieve these simple goals, reward yourself! If it’s at the office party, get another drink or some food.
8. Face Your Fears
Ultimately, its fear that drives social anxiety, It’s the fear of being rejected, judged, negatively evaluated or embarrassed.
The solution is to confront the fear. To feel the fear and do it anyway! When you take action despite fear, you’ll get a wonderful feeling of elation and aliveness after you’ve conquered the fear. This has happened to me many times.
Facing and overcoming your fears is key to achieving success in overcoming social anxiety. When you don’t face your fears, you’ll get feelings of regret later on. You’ll regret lost opportunities and things you didn’t accomplish because of fear.
When you don’t confront your fears, they become scarier in your mind. Your perception of the fear gets bigger and bigger. This feeds into social anxiety and can cause it to get worse over time.
If tackling your biggest social anxiety fears head-on seems daunting, then break them down into baby steps. This will make an enormous difference and make any fears much smaller and more manageable.
Every time you take action to accomplish one of these baby steps, your confidence will improve and you will find it easier to take on the next step.
Here is an example of baby steps to help overcome a fear of talking to new people.
- Talk to someone new when accompanied by a friend or colleague.
- Talk to the person next to you at a corporate dinner function or in a meeting or seminar.
- Talk to someone that is not talking to anyone. I’m sure they’ll appreciate your company.
- Join a group of 2 people that are already talking. Say nothing, just listen and smile.
- Join a group of 2 people that are already talking and add to the conversation.
- Talk to someone from the opposite sex (if that’s a fear for you).
I encourage you right now to identify your biggest social anxiety fear. Then break it down into manageable steps, then act on each step in turn. You’ll then overcome smaller fears one by one. This will really help you overcome social anxiety.
Overcoming social anxiety takes time, so be gentle with yourself and implement one step at a time. In this article, I’ve covered 8 ways in detail. However, I encourage you to start with 1 or 2 of these methods. Once you’re comfortable and seeing results, add another approach. When you act consistently, it’s amazing how quickly you notice the differences and benefits.
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