When we suffer from social anxiety, we may start to avoid social situations. Unfortunately, that only increases social anxiety, which just turns it into a vicious, never-ending cycle.
So what are we to do? One of the most important things you can do is stop avoiding the situations that make you socially anxious. "By facing the situations that make you uncomfortable, you gain confidence and mastery and refute the story you've created in your head that you are not _____ enough to participate (fill in the blank — pretty, smart, successful, knowledgeable, etc.)," said Amy Vigliotti, PhD, and founder of SelfWorks Group: Therapy Professionals.
"You might also consider social activities that you already enjoy and can envision sharing the enjoyment with others," Dr. Vigliotti said.
Social anxiety is like all forms of anxiety in that it shares the cognitive process of "time traveling," meaning you are often 10 steps ahead of what is actually happening, Dr. Vigliotti explained.
You are making predictions about things in the future, often in some part due to cognitive errors we label as fortune telling ("I won't be invited back again."), catastrophizing ("This will be the worst ever."), and mind reading ("She thinks I'm incompetent.") "The biggest tip for alleviating this future-oriented type of thinking is to remain mindful of the present. You can pick neutral items in your environment and refocus your attention on those. A daily meditation or yoga practice can help you learn mindfulness strategies that you can apply to anxiety-provoking situations," Dr. Vigliotti said.
An easy way to work through it is to just breathe. "When we become anxious, our breath often becomes shallow and sends a signal to the rest of our body that we are in some kind of danger," Dr. Vigliotti said. To prevent physiological distress caused by anxiety, do quick body scans — check for signs of tension in some of the main culprit areas, like your neck, jaw, shoulders, and hands, and let those areas loosen and relax. "Deepen your breath into the lower parts of your diaphragm. Our breath is one of our best tools for quieting an anxious mind," Dr. Vigliotti said.
One of the other hallmarks of social anxiety is called "spotlighting." "Instead of allowing the organic flow of a conversation or event, your mind is deconstructing each and every part and likely being overly critical, which in turn causes you to become self-conscious and raises anxiety. Imagine you took a common behavior like eating, and instead of enjoying the taste and smell of the food, you were hyperfocused on how you held the fork (is this the right grip?), how much food you have on the fork (is this too much?), how you chew the food (am I being too loud?)," Dr. Vigliotti said.
"Try putting on music or lighting a candle and focusing on those senses — the sounds and smells — to get out of your thoughts."
You can see how social anxiety takes a task that is generally automatic and draws judgmental attention to small components of the task. "Someone with social anxiety can apply this kind of vigilant criticism to any task. My tip here is to get out of your head. Try putting on music or lighting a candle and focusing on those senses — the sounds and smells — to get out of your thoughts," Dr. Vigliotti said. If you're in a conversation, refocus your attention on the person talking — allowing yourself to become more curious and interested.
Dr. Vigliotti also recommends trying to "catch" your inner critic in the act. "When you criticize yourself, could you stop and ask yourself, would I say this to my best friend? Am I being unnecessarily harsh? If the answer is yes, then block those thoughts!" she said.
Start talking to yourself like you talk to your best friend, which, ideally, you are.