You walk into a room full of people and suddenly you feel every eyeball turn towards you. You’re inside a group of people desperately wishing no one notices you or starts talking to you. But when they do, your heart starts pounding, your mind goes blank and you start fidgeting.
‘Shit, they think I’m stupid,’ you think.
In social situations, you’re always on your phone so you don’t have to face people. Or you have your AirPods on. You want to run home as soon as possible.
I’ve been there. For years, I struggled with social anxiety. With time, I got better and today I can confidently show to in any social situation. In fact, I socialise more than most people around me and what’s more, I have fun. It’s not an anxiety-provoking experience anymore – well, at least not for the most part.
So how did I do it? Here’s what works for me:
Turn your focus outward
When you have social anxiety, you’re too focused inward. All you’re thinking about is yourself. ‘I look fat,’ ‘I look dumb,’ ‘I’m stupid,’ ‘I don’t know what to talk about.’ I… I… I…
The key here is to turn your attention outward towards your surroundings. Observe people. Carefully listen to them. Notice what’s going on around you. You don’t have to say anything just to fill in the silence. If you do, you might end up saying something embarrassing and your anxiety will multiply. Instead, speak less if that’s what you’re comfortable with. Ask the other person questions and keep them speaking.
Before you go into a social situation, tell yourself: I’m curious to learn about the people I meet.
Here’s a little secret: Nobody is thinking about you. That other person who’s making you sweaty? They’re too are too self-absorbed to think about you. So turn your attention outwards.
Which brings me to the next point…
Practise mindfulness meditation
This may sound like a cliche but mindfulness does work. One study shows that participants with a social anxiety disorder who underwent mindfulness training showed enhanced self-esteem and reduced anxiety.
When you have social anxiety, you’re too caught up in your head. Your brain blanks out when you meet people. Mindfulness keeps you grounded and more present so you can calm down your nerves and enjoy the moment.
Here are some ways you can practise mindful meditation:
- Sit in a comfortable position and focus on your breathing. Inhale, hold it in and exhale slowly. Do this for five minutes at least.
- Acknowledge any obsessive thoughts you may have and let them pass. Bring back your focus to your breath.
- Listen to a guided meditation tape every morning or at night before going to bed.
- Focus on your sensations. What colours do you see around you? What sounds do you hear? What sensations do you feel?
You won’t see results in a day or two. Mindfulness should be a consistent daily practice.
Don’t think people are judging you
One thing most of us with social anxiety experience is the feeling that everyone around us is judging us. That everyone is looking at us. We have this feeling of every eyeball turning towards us as we walk. Suddenly our legs feel heavy, we don’t know what to do with our hands and we become super self-conscious.
But the reality is far from this.
People are not always negatively judging us. Sure, they might look at us and think something but that something can be anything, even a nice thing. What anxiety does is it always makes us see the negative side of things. ‘They think I look weird.’ But on the flip side of negativity is positivity. The next time you think people are judging you negatively, tell yourself ‘Maybe they like my jacket or my hairstyle, or whatever.’ And let this thought pass.
Then quickly turn your attention outwards and start observing your surroundings.
Don’t judge people negatively either
Judgment goes both ways. When you think people are negatively judging you, you tend you judge them negatively too. ‘Eww, that girl’s hair looks gross.’ ‘That dude looks like he hasn’t showered in six months.’
But you can choose to judge people positively too, even if you don’t really like them. The next time you meet someone, think about how cute their smile is, how nice they smell, or how you admire their confidence. Compliment them. If you don’t like them, try to observe one positive quality about them.
I’ve learned that meeting people with positive energy does help ease social anxiety. What’s more, you radiate good vibes and people start to like you more.
Expose yourself to new situations
The best way to deal with social anxiety is to expose yourself to social situations. But do it slowly. For example, if your anxiety is terrible don’t show up to a party full of people. Instead, show up to places where there aren’t a lot of people. Try talking to one or two people. Keep a good friend with you close by if it helps. As your anxiety gets better, start talking to more and more people.
If you don’t want to be the one doing all the talking, ask people questions to get them talking and attentively listen to them.
Lastly, stop telling yourself that you have social anxiety. What I’ve observed in people with social anxiety is that they keep telling everyone that they have social anxiety. Often, I’ve been surprised because the person seemed confident and easygoing and I got to know about their social anxiety only after they had said it.
So stop telling everyone and yourself in your head that you have social anxiety. By saying it, you’re only confirming your beliefs and it’s not helpful at all.
Sadia Maqsood holds a degree in psychology and is a freelance writer for hire in mental health. She tweets @becomingsadia