How to Overcome Social Anxiety
Most people who suffer from social anxiety are searching for steps that can help. Thankfully, the research does point us in a helpful direction.
This article is the third in a series on social anxiety. For previous articles in this series, see:
We've talked about the symptoms of social anxiety and how there can be multiple factors that cause it across the biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of your experience. Now let's see how social anxiety can be overcome.
As with any mental health struggle, this is a sustained process over time, not a quick-fix solution, but the good news is that there is hope for victory over social anxiety! There are definitely people out there who used to struggle with social anxiety and—after sustained, intentional efforts over time—no longer have this battle in their lives.
The approach I'll describe in this post is inspired by my own affinity for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an approach that the research has shown to be effective for social anxiety (Leichsenring et al, 2013). This post is also partly inspired by The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens, which is currently my favorite resource in coaching youth in their process of overcoming social anxiety. These approaches have the potential to work well for people of any age, however, as long as they're adjusted to be developmentally appropriate to the person and their life.
Clarify Your Values
A first helpful step in overcoming social anxiety is digging deep and getting abundantly clear about what you value. I sometimes find it helpful to use a values sort activity like this one from Think2Perform or this one from The Good Project. There are no right or wrong answers here. Your values indicate what is most important to you in life, which helps keep you grounded in a sense of meaning and purpose.
When it comes to social anxiety, looking at your values can help highlight any gap between the life you'd want to live (aligned with your values) versus the life you're living now (perhaps misaligned with your values?). When there is incongruence with our values and the life we're currently living, this can be a source of pain.
Regardless of the degree to which your current life is aligned with your deeper values or not, clarity about your values helps you respond to questions such as: Why is social anxiety a problem in your life? How is social anxiety holding you back from a more meaningful, purpose-filled life? Why do you care about changing your social anxiety? What motivates you to enact that change?
Modify Negative Thoughts
Another good step in overcoming social anxiety is to become consciously aware of negative thinking patterns and learn to modify them. This is where a therapist can be especially helpful, but you can certainly try self-help approaches to this as well. People differ in the extent to which they are aware of their thoughts, but you can certainly practice this muscle of recognizing thoughts and then challenging them.
The aforementioned workbook I tend to use in therapy for social anxiety has a great list of negative thinking patterns that we fall into sometimes, especially when it comes to social anxiety. For example, spotlighting is a negative thinking pattern where we imagine that everyone and their mother has their eyeballs on us in a social situation! When we catch ourselves spotlighting, we can challenge this thinking pattern by reminding ourselves that most people are probably only partially paying attention, have other thoughts going on, or are in their own worlds sometimes.
Another example of a negative thinking pattern is catastrophizing. This is when we take a mole hill and make a mountain out of it, perhaps imagining the worst possible outcome of a social situation. We can challenge this negative thinking pattern by getting more realistic with ourselves. Even if we feel a little nervous or awkward in a social situation, that's okay, and it's unlikely that the worst possible outcome will happen (like, no one is going to die because you feel nervous!).
Here are 68 coping skills to try for anxiety or depression today
Set Realistic Rather Than Perfectionistic Goals
Let's talk more about this idea of getting realistic. This is a key concept in overcoming social anxiety. It's common that when we struggle with social anxiety we expect perfection across the board, particularly in our social interactions with others. The more realistic reality is that human social interactions usually tend to have a low-level twinge of awkwardness, nervousness, discomfort—and that's totally normal and okay. The perfect social interaction or social performance does not exist—sorry, but that's a unicorn!
Stop chasing after unicorns and instead try to ground yourself in some small, realistic social goals. This will vary depending on where you're at in your battle with social anxiety. For example, maybe a small, realistic goal for you would be to smile, wave, and say hello next time you see a neighbor. Maybe it would be to make eye contact with the next person you pass in a hallway. Maybe it would be to type one message in the general chat or private chat over Zoom.
Start Breaking the Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle
Anxiety and avoidance can be close cousins. Unfortunately, when we avoid feared situations, that tends to grow our anxiety because we taught ourselves that avoiding makes us feel better. Avoidance is a short-term band-aid that results in a long-term injury. Breaking the anxiety-avoidance cycle is key in overcoming anxiety.
So how can we break the cycle? As you start to think through your small, realistic goals, start to organize these according to a theme. Maybe the core struggle for you right now is initiating conversations. Maybe it's talking about yourself in conversations. Maybe it's eating in front of others or using public restrooms.
Whatever you see as your core struggles right now, prioritize one of them to tackle in the form of a fear ladder (fear hierarchy). This involves creating a list that has 10-12 steps, from your smallest feared situation up to your biggest feared situation related to that core struggle. Each step should be an action that you can practice. Give each step a fear rating (on a scale from 0-10, how afraid are you of taking that action? 0 is the lowest and 10 is the highest) to help you sequence the steps.
If your core struggle is initiating conversations, your fear ladder might look something like this (with fear ratings in parentheses):
- start a conversation with a stranger in public (10)
- call a public number (hotline, restaurant, etc.) and ask a question (9)
- ask a question in a class or work meeting (8)
- greet an authority figure (boss, teacher, coach, etc.) and ask how they are (7)
- start a text conversation with a friend (6)
- with Zoom camera on, unmute and say something (6)
- keep Zoom camera on for 20 minutes (5)
- keep Zoom camera on for 10 minutes (4)
- wave hello at an unfamiliar neighbor (4)
- wave hello at a familiar neighbor (3)
- type a greeting (hello) over Zoom or social media (2)
- initiate an email conversation (1)
Of course, every person will be different in terms of their core struggle, their fear ladder steps, and their associated fear ratings. You get the main idea though—create a sequence of steps related to a core theme and order them by fear level. These steps are called exposure tasks.
Now comes the bread and butter of overcoming social anxiety: gradual exposure! Climb your fear ladder one step at a time. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Do this in a manageable way for you, whether that be one step per day or one step per week. Remember to challenge any negative thoughts that occur to you beforehand. It can also be helpful to plan how you'll cope with any creeping anxiety (could you take a deep breath in the moment? step away for a break? listen to music beforehand?).
If you're the journaling type, here are some suggested journal prompts before each exposure task:
- What negative thinking patterns are you falling into, if any? What new, modified thoughts would be more accurate (realistic) and helpful? If you're a person of faith, feel free to tie in scripture here.
- What coping attitudes or actions could help you face this task?
- What is a realistic (rather than perfectionistic) goal for this task?
- How does this task relate to your values? Why is it important for you to tackle this exposure task, given what a more meaningful and purpose-filled life would look like for you? How are you moving toward your values by taking this difficult step?
Here's a helpful motto to remember: feel the fear and do it anyway! That's a picture of courage.
Reflect and Reward
After tackling each step, regroup and reflect. How did it go? Did you meet your realistic goal? How did you cope and move toward your values? Any and every outcome of your practicing an exposure task can be beneficial. If things don't go as planned, resist the urge to think, "That was a total disaster." Was it really? I bet you learned something. I bet you flexed a muscle of courage. I bet you practiced facing disappointment, rejection, or embarrassment and learned that you can actually cope with it and it wasn't as bad as you expected! Everything is an opportunity to learn and grow, even if what we learned is that we'd try a different approach next time.
Don't forget to reward yourself. This may sound silly, but take it seriously. A basic principle of behavior change is that whatever we reward will grow; whatever we ignore will shrink. Grow your own courage and victory over social anxiety by reinforcing it through rewards. Each time you complete a step on your fear ladder, give yourself a small reward. Maybe even give yourself a bigger reward for tackling that top step!
Rinse and Repeat
If you go step by step and reach the top of a fear ladder – WOW – congratulations! Re-evaluate to see where you're at with social anxiety in your life. Maybe it means you need to continue intentionally practicing those fear ladder steps. Maybe it means you need to make another fear ladder related to a different core struggle and climb that one next. Eventually, you can reach the point where you are on cruise control and maybe don't need another ladder!
Reach Out for Help
There are self-help steps that can help with social anxiety, but especially if you're suffering—don't go it alone. There are ways to reach out, even if you're more comfortable right now reaching out via text or email. Support groups, in particular, can be helpful for people struggling with social anxiety. For most anxiety disorders—especially when they are moderate or high in their severity—medication can also help people get "out of the rut" and onto the path of victory. For resources that can help, see my How to Find a Therapist article.
Here are 68 coping skills to try for anxiety or depression today
References & Credits
Leichsenring, F., Salzer, S., Beutel, M. E., Herpertz, S., Hiller, W., Hoyer, J., Huesing, J., Joraschky, P., Nolting, B., Poehlmann, K., Ritter, V., Stangier, U., Strauss, B., Stuhldreher, N., Tefikow, S., Teismann, T., Willutzki, U., Wiltink, J., & Leibing, E. (2013). Psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy in social anxiety disorder: A multicenter randomized controlled trial.
American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(7), p. 759-767. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.12081125
Shannon, J., & Shannon, D. (2012). The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens. Instant Help.