You walk into the room, take one look around, and start to sweat. So many faces. Some familiar, most not. Your chest tightens, you feel like you can’t breathe, and an overwhelming sense of dread sweeps over you. The walls are closing in. You’re in a full panic now. You can’t think. You’ve just gotta get out of there. With tears in your eyes, you flee. Outside in the fresh air, you slowly…. slowly…slowly begin to calm down. And then, right on time, there’s that thought. “What is wrong with me??” Regardless of the scathing self-reproach, you sigh and say to yourself, “Whatever. I’m definitely not going back in there.” And you head home.
If this sounds familiar, you may struggle with social anxiety. While it’s normal to feel nervous in some social situations, like going on a date, giving a talk in front of others, or showing up on a first day of school or work, it can make life really hard when that nervousness takes over completely. Social anxiety is an intense fear of being watched or judged by others. It’s self-consciousness in the extreme, and a persistent fear of what others might think. It’s a sense of overwhelming pressure to not “embarrass yourself.” It’s being consumed with feelings of dread at the idea of a social event, and it’s the inevitable “what ifs.” What if they think you’re weird? What if you say the wrong thing? What if you don’t know anyone there? What if you’re the only one dressed this way? What if you blush or babble? What if they can tell you’re anxious? What if? What if? What if? Over time, you find, it’s just easier not to go. You begin avoiding social situations as much as possible, which actually only makes it worse.
But what are the options? What can you do when anxiety shows up at your social gatherings?
First of all, practice compassion. Judging yourself harshly only increases anxiety. It adds pressure, which increases stress, and stress triggers anxiety. So be nice to yourself. If you’ve got an event coming up, try to prepare in advance by getting as much information as you can. If possible, get a sense of the space or location. How big will it be? Is it far from where you live? How many people might be there? Is it a formal or informal event? Will there be food or drinks? Do you know anyone else who might be there or who has perhaps gone to a similar event before? Read up on the event if you can. As the event approaches, practice driving by the location or going in. Check things out. The more prepared you feel as far as what to expect, the less anxiety you might have.
On the day of the event, allow enough time to get ready without feeling rushed, but don’t drag it out either by making it an all-day thing. If you know it normally takes you an hour to get ready, give yourself 90 minutes. Enough extra time to take some pressure off, but not so much that you’re stewing. Do give yourself extra time to get to the event if there’s a specific start time. The last thing you need is to find yourself stuck in traffic or searching for parking as the clock ticks.
Before you go in, take some deep breaths. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to expand with air as you do, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat these breaths for several minutes. You can also add a positive mantra such as “I breathe in peace, and I breathe out stress and tension.” Bring your awareness to any tightness you feel in your body by doing a body scan. Release the tension by breathing, stretching, or shaking it out. Practice positive self-talk. “You can do this. You’ve got this. It’s going to be fine.”
As you walk in, take the focus off yourself and emotionally ground yourself by tuning into details around you using your senses. One helpful grounding technique is called 5-4-3-2-1. Name five things you see around you (a light, a stage, a chair, etc.). Then name four things you can touch, and actually touch those items (a door, the wall, your clothing, a glass, etc.). Next, name three things you can hear around you, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
If you can, get a glass of cold water when you notice nerves coming on. Cold water has been shown to engage our system and reduce our heart rate. It’s a great way to “reset.” You can also use that same approach by holding something cold to the inside of your wrists. If you happen to have a cold beverage, you can do this inconspicuously. If not, you can step into the restroom and use a cold, wet paper towel. Place the paper towel on the back of your neck, your wrists, or your face.
Throughout the event, be mindful of your breathing. Focus your attention on those longer, deeper breaths. When anxiety starts to creep up, one of the first things that happens is our breath becomes more shallow or we hold our breath completely. You may find it helpful to set a little reminder on your phone or carry a little note with you that says, “Remember to breathe!” Getting outside and getting some fresh air can also be a very useful thing to do. It allows you to regroup and calm your nervous system.
Practice challenging anxious thoughts with statements like, “a thought is just a thought,” or “I notice that I’m having the thought that…” For instance, instead of being consumed with the thought, “Oh my gosh they totally think I’m weird,” try, “I notice that I’m having the thought that they think I’m weird.” Using this strategy creates just a little bit of a separation between you and the thought itself and allows you to engage a different part of your brain.
While it’s tempting to avoid those situations that bring up fear and anxiety, the more we avoid them, the more we reinforce those fears. Be gentle with yourself, but don’t avoid those social engagements. Reach out to friends and family for encouragement, and consider working with a therapist for additional support. It’s not easy, but social anxiety can be treated very effectively with the right tools, resources, support, and strategies. You’ve got this! For more information contact us at (805) 842-1994.