Learning how to overcome social anxiety
Painful shyness has affected Karen Chapelle, a 48-year-old welder, for her entire life. While she has many friends that she sees one-on-one, trying to socialise with more than a few people – especially if she doesn’t know them – sends her into a cold sweat.
Like Chapelle, many socially anxious people brace themselves for meaningless chatter at group events or forced conversation at birthdays. And while most people feel bashful some of the time, or under some circumstances, an estimated 12 per cent struggle with a more serious social-anxiety disorder, which significantly impacts their lives. If you’re looking to learn how to overcome social anxiety, these simple strategies will help guide you through any social situation.
Be conscious of your body language
“Much of the time, when people are anxious or are afraid of being rejected, they have a very closed body posture. They fold their arms over their chest, speak quietly, or stand far away from other people,” says Martin Antony, a psychology professor and co-author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook. “Other people read those cues and think, This person doesn’t want to be social right now, so I’m going to stay away.”
Antony says actively counteracting these “get away from me” signals can go a long way toward breaking the cycle of awkwardness and self-exile. Don’t know what’s actually appropriate in terms of personal space? Antony suggests watching how closely others are standing to people you’re talking to and model yourself after them. Also, he adds, speak a little more loudly than you’re used to – if people can’t hear you, it’s very easy for them to unwittingly ignore you, making you feel even more uncomfortable.
Examine your thoughts
The next step in learning how to overcome social anxiety is doing a bit of preparation. When Chapelle does decide to attend an event, she spends a great deal of time beforehand – sometimes even weeks – imagining every possible scenario that could go wrong (and hence providing “evidence” for why she probably shouldn’t go at all). “Sometimes I realise that I’m panicking over nothing,” she says, and finds that people are always pleasantly surprised when she arrives.
Judith Laposa, a psychologist, says one of the main ways that even capital-S social-anxiety disorder is treated is by evaluating your thought patterns more critically. This is a cornerstone of cognitive behavioural therapy, which can also be helpful for milder cases.
“A practical thing you can do is ask yourself: ‘What am I afraid is going to happen?’” she says. “Maybe you’re scared that people are going to laugh at you and walk out. But how likely is that, really?” Laposa says most people, when anxious, overestimate the odds of something disastrous occurring.