3 Simple Tricks To Ease Social Anxiety

(From a psychologist who literally wrote the book on it)

Annie Zelm
Feb 27, 2019 · 6 min read
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It can strike without warning. One minute, you’re in the middle of a company meeting just listening. You feel completely calm, maybe even a bit bored.

Then you’re called upon to speak.

You’ve given a lot of thought to what you’ll say. You’ve prepared a few slides and you have your notes handy, just in case. Besides, when it comes to this topic, you’re the undisputed expert in the room.

So why is it suddenly so hard to breathe?

When did this boa constrictor curl up on your chest and start winding its way around your throat?

Social anxiety can steal the air out of your lungs and take your legs out from under you when you least expect it.

Maybe you know the feeling.

While almost all of us have felt anxious in certain situations, about 12 percent of American adults experience social anxiety disorder at some point, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That means they’re not just anxious when speaking in public or meeting someone new—they’re anxious to the point where it interferes with their lives in some way. It might cause them to avoid parties or keep them from accepting a promotion.

Psychologist Ellen Hendricksen has been there, and she has some advice.

In a recent interview with Dan Harris of the 10% Happier podcast, she shared a lifetime worth of wisdom about what causes social anxiety and how to manage it. Her book, How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, is based on all the things she said she wished she would have known 20 years ago.

““I think I thought I was walking through a sort of social tightrope or a laser maze and that if I made one mistake, alarms would go off all around me,” she said. “Rather than a tightrope, I realized it’s more of an expressway—that there’s this wide range of acceptable social behaviors.”

Why You Feel So Anxious

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Almost everyone has an inner critic. It’s a sign of self-consciousness— an important evolutionary trait that allows us to keep our own behavior in check and make sure we’re getting along with others.

Hendricksen says social anxiety is just self-consciousness on steroids.

You become hypervigilant about “checking” yourself to the point where it becomes counterproductive, even paralyzing.

While social anxiety stems from a mix of genetic and environmental factors—people with a first-degree relative who has diagnosable social anxiety are four to six times more likely to have it themselves—it’s rooted in a fear that we have some fatal flaw we need to conceal.

We might believe we’re boring or awkward. Or that we’re not attractive enough. Whatever it is, the fear of others seeing this flaw is what makes us so anxious.

3 Tricks That Actually Work

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I’ve never had a diagnosed social anxiety disorder, but I do come from a long line of worriers. Anxiety is something I’ve dealt with on some level for most of my adult life. And although I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping it in check, it still sneaks up on me sometimes.

I’ve had well-meaning friends and family members say things like, “Just believe in yourself!” or “Fake it ’til you make it.”

This kind of “magical thinking” has never really worked for me.

As Rainesford Stauffer said in her excellent article about the constructive power of self-doubt, believing in myself always felt like just one more thing I could fail at. If success hinged on me feeling confident, I was doomed from the start.

Hendricksen offered three simple tricks for easing social anxiety that I’ve actually been using for years without realizing it. And in my own experience, they really do work.

1. Turn Your Attention Inside Out

In a socially anxious moment, we naturally turn our attention inside. We might critique the way we’re standing or notice that people look bored as we’re speaking.

This makes the problem worse. That’s why Hendricksen’s first tip is to focus outward instead. Look at the person you’re speaking to. Listen carefully. Think about what they need to hear from you, and let that drive you to share with them.

Something else that has always helped me is to focus on connecting with just one person, rather than trying to connect with the entire crowd. I’m rarely anxious when talking with just one person—even if they’re a complete stranger—because it’s a lot easier to focus my attention on them. It’s harder to see individual faces if you’re constantly scanning the crowd.

2. Drop Safety Behaviors

Safety behaviors are counterproductive mechanisms we use to relieve anxiety that actually make it worse.

According to psychologist Craig Marker, some examples of safety behaviors are:

  • Sitting in the back of the room
  • Talking fast during a presentation to “get it over with”
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Peppering someone with questions to keep the attention off ourselves
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Leaving the room to avoid interaction

While these behaviors might make us feel better in the moment, Marker says over time, they actually make our anxiety worse because they signal to our brain that the situation is more dangerous than it really is.

3. Give Yourself A Mission

Do you feel like you never know what to say at networking events, but when you’re hosting a fundraiser for a cause you’re passionate about, you morph into a social butterfly?

You’re not alone.

“The thing that drives all social anxiety is uncertainty,” Hendricksen said. “So when you know what you’re supposed to do, whether that’s refilling drinks or introducing people…that uncertainty falls away and you feel much better.”

Every social situation has some elements of uncertainty, but Hendricksen said we can ease our anxiety by giving ourselves a mission.

If you’re going to a networking event, your mission might be to exchange business cards with three people. At a party, maybe it’s really connecting with one new person and making them laugh, rather than trying to entertain the entire room. You might find it’s easier to host a party than attend one because you have a clearly defined role.

Having a mission gives you some structure, which helps you feel more in control.

Social anxiety can make you feel powerless if you let it. It can keep you from advancing in your career, limit your friendships and cause you to miss out on some amazing experiences. It’s OK to feel anxious from time to time. It’s a sign you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, which is the only way you’ll grow. But when you feel your throat constricting or your palms sweating, take a deep breath. Focus on the people around you and remember they’re just people with their own doubts and flaws. Resist the urge to talk fast or retreat. Give yourself a mission, however silly or small it might seem.

And give yourself a break!

A lot of social anxiety stems from the expectations we place on ourselves to be charming, witty, confident and competent in every situation. The reality is, no one is firing on all cylinders at all times.

We all have moments of self-consciousness, awkwardness or insecurity.

When you catch yourself stumbling, just remember that most people are so focused on everything that’s going on around them or what’s going on inside them that there’s a good chance no one even noticed.

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