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Small Steps to Overcoming Social Anxiety

Creator:
Published:
December 20, 2023
December 18, 2023
Looking for social anxiety coping skills? These 4 tips could help you improve your mental health and keep anxiety at bay.

For most people in my life, I come off as an outgoing, approachable, and friendly person, someone who can strike up a conversation with anybody. I love people and find myself overjoyed when I have the opportunity to be sociable and engage with others. My friends know: once Ivan starts talking, that’s a wrap! 

For this reason, it would come as a shock to many to know that at the age of sixteen, I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. At the time, I would avoid going to the grocery store as I was fearful of seeing somebody I knew. Meeting new people caused me anxiety, heightened by the pressure of wanting to make a good impression. 

Fast forward to the fall of 2022, I was invited by my best friend to take a weekend trip and visit him in his hometown which included meeting members of his family. I was thrilled and appreciative of such an opportunity. Simultaneously, however, I remained uneasy and distressed about the prospect of meeting new people in an unfamiliar environment. 

Being cognizant of this fact, I decided to employ a few techniques that I acquired throughout the years in order to keep the social anxiety at bay. Spoiler alert: it worked! My mental health journey is very much ongoing, but I have collected some tips over the years that may be instrumental in the endeavor to overcome one’s social anxiety. 

Say yes

Just as one needs to work out their muscles in order to get stronger, so too do we need to work out our mental health muscle in order to get better. The best way to do this, and the hardest, is to expose yourself to new social situations. Although it is completely normal to be wary of social situations that are new and uncomfortable, avoiding social situations can actually make our social anxiety persist, making it harder to feel better. 

During the fall semester of my senior year in college, I had the golden opportunity of serving on a panel about the intersection of faith and mental health for a Lasallian conference in Baltimore, Maryland. As much as I dreaded traveling alone to a situation that was unfamiliar to me, filled with strangers, I decided to take the plunge and accept this invitation anyways. It turned out to be an amazing time and I made new friends that I still keep in contact with to this day, something that would not have happened otherwise!

Ironically, the first step to tackling social anxiety is to immerse yourself in situations that will likely trigger it. By leaning into the discomfort of different (social) situations, you will start to build your confidence and coping skills as you move up the “anxiety ladder.” 

Engage in diaphragmatic breathing 

“A sound body keeps a sound mind,” the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales once declared. When it comes to social anxiety, this statement couldn’t be truer. The stress response caused by anxiety can be reduced by consciously and mindfully breathing using the diaphragm. This is due to the fact that abdominal breathing aids in controlling the nervous system and signals the body to relax, lessening one’s anxiety to avoid heightened anxiety or a full-blown panic attack. 

To practice this, slowly breathe in your nose with your belly coming outward as you take in air, and you'll feel your lungs opening up. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth while letting the stomach fall downward. In short: breathe in, stomach out, then breathe out, stomach in. You might also find it useful to deliberately pay attention to each breath and to take your time with the breathing. This creates the opportunity to distract and quiet the mind from hearing those anxiety-filled thoughts. 

A few months after one of my closest friends graduated, I attended his goodbye celebration as he was moving from New York back to his hometown in California. In the beginning, I was cool and collected. As more and more people arrived, I became increasingly more anxious with my fear of being judged only becoming more persistent and intense. I knew I could not control my mind at the moment, but I could attempt to control my body. My best friend reminded me to breathe, and it helped me avoid spiraling into a full-blown panic attack by reducing my heart rate and improving my relaxation. 

Have a companion who knows

It is said that a companion is always there for you, whatever the circumstances may be. I found solace in knowing that I could rely on my friends during trying times, no matter how big or small my problems were. It can be difficult and can even feel embarrassing to admit to someone that you are struggling with social anxiety and that you might need their help. However, having a friend who is there alongside you can offer much needed support and serve as a major boost.

After I graduated from college, my school started to organize alumni events at venues across the city and beyond. Wishing to network and take advantage of this incredible opportunity, including the saving grace of free food, I did not want my social anxiety to get in the way. My close friend and wonderful roommate at the time was willing to go with me, knowing that I valued his presence. When there was silence between myself and somebody I was meeting, I could rely on my friend to strike up the conversation which avoided possible awkwardness. 

Having a friend who knows about my social anxiety to go with brought me much needed peace and security, knowing that he knew what I was feeling. If I needed to escape outside or take a break by going to the restroom to calm down, I could count on my friend to understand and be aware of the situation. At the same time, going to do things with friends has the double advantage of encouraging you to expose yourself to a situation while spending quality time with a friend. 

Give yourself grace

When you are out in public during a social situation, it can be easy to start spiraling, thinking about everything that is going wrong. More often than not, we tend to ruminate on our experiences later on. Why did I say that? I stuttered so much! I had to leave early, why am I like this? But it is important to be kind to yourself. Think about the good: how you stayed in public for an hour, how you took the initiative to strike up a conversation, or how you gave a five-minute speech in public. 

In my own life, I tend to get discouraged regarding my own mental health journey. But I am often reminded by others that I am, in fact, enduring, and in my many ways, thriving. I refuse to let my thoughts dictate who I am, and I often try to reflect and realize how far I’ve come. A few years ago, I could not even enter a grocery store without a feeling of dread. Now, I can strike up conversations with strangers in coffee shops and take solo trips when I travel!

We are not our thoughts, but it can be so easy to believe the opposite to be true. Everybody is going through different things at a variety of paces. Overcoming the dread of social situations takes time and it is only with the small steps that we see progress. So settle in. No need to rush — your mental health isn’t going anywhere.

***

The persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being judged by others can be an annoyance at best and a heavy burden at worst. However, overcoming social anxiety or social anxiety disorder is possible. With patience, hope, and some tips, treatment is possible. We may not be able to escape our thoughts all the time, but we can take steps to make our fears easier to face. 

Creators:
Ivan Brea
Published:
December 20, 2023
December 18, 2023
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