Social anxiety is common—according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it affects 15 million Americans. Licensed clinical professional counselor Julienne Derichs describes social anxiety as when a person feels "highly anxious about being with other people." Chances are you've dealt with those symptoms either personally or with a loved one.
"Social anxiety can be both a function of negative experiences or chemically driven. Or both," explains Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. "To address it, there are strategic choices and coping skills you can learn to take advantage of." Below, find a list of the best ways to successfully take charge of your social anxiety.
1. Educate Yourself
"Educate yourself on what anxiety is, social and otherwise," says Hafeez. "Understand your own background and where it may come from—genetics, experiences, etc. Then you can start to treat it properly. Believe that anxiety is not reality but feels like it. See that you can blow things up and they feel true but are not. Once you understand these basics, you've challenged the very cornerstone of your anxiety."
2. Accept it
"Engage with your anxiety," suggests Hafeez. "Feel the discomfort and then challenge it. Avoiding or trying to keep it at bay is not only exhausting, but it's counterproductive, causing more anxiety."
3. Use Realistic Thinking
"Try 'realistic' thinking, not 'positive' thinking," recommends Hafeez. "Being realistic reminds you that things are not as bad as you think, and there is great comfort in that. So when you expect a job interview to go terribly, remind yourself that while the interview is a huge deal to you, you're just one of the many candidates and have qualifications on your résumé that speak for themselves. While the interview may not go spectacularly, it also won't go terribly. That kind of self-talk will assuage anxiety."
"It seems so easy, but when we are anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid," notes Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, the executive director at Maryland House Detox and Delphi Behavioral Health. "This sends feedback to the brain that there is something to be anxious about.Take long, deep breaths."
Hafeez agrees: "Practicing breathing along with other cognitive behavioral techniques is a great way to beat anxiety. Deep, controlled breaths, in and out, are not a cliché. It really works."
"If social engagements or interactions make you feel anxious, have a plan before attending," says Dehorty. "Think of things to talk about, who may be there, and what you may want to ask people. You can even make goals to talk to a certain number of people to avoid situations that may increase anxiety (like standing by yourself)."
6. Alter the Words You Use
"Research shows the types of words you use for your experiences end up defining them," explains Hafeez. "So instead of saying, 'I'm nervous about going to the party and meeting so many people,' try, 'I'm excited to dress up and see some friends and maybe make some new ones.'"
7. Avoid Excess
"Be aware of the amount of alcohol or caffeine you're consuming, as this will negatively reinforce your anxiety," says Dehorty. "It may take the edge off in the moment, but it is an unhealthy coping skill that you don't want to rely on."
8. Don't Compare Yourself
"Don't compare how you are feeling to how everyone else looks like they're feeling," suggests Dehorty. "That increases your anxiety. For all you know, everyone is feeling the same feelings that you are."
9. Attempt to Stay in the Moment
"Anticipatory anxiety is often worse than the actual anxiety," explains Dehorty. "We feel anxious leading up to an event or interaction because we play out scenarios or picture ourselves feeling awkward. Make a plan, and then be in the moment—don't live in the in-between."
10. Speak to Your Doctor
"Of course," says Hafeez, "if your anxiety is crippling, seek helpful advice from a psychiatrist and a cognitive behavioral psychologist. They can work in tandem to help decrease your anxiety and help you stay in control of it."