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How to Beat Social Anxiety
The fear is what tears you apart. It grips you, holds you, debilitates you. Suddenly it's harder to breathe, everyone is staring at you, everyone is judging you, you feel the weight of their thoughts. You feel the crushing sense of embarrassment sitting on your shoulders waiting for you to collapse. You need to leave, you need to escape, you head for the door. Finally you escape, finally you can breathe again without your heart in your throat. You left without a single word uttered and without anyone ever really knowing why you left, or anyone actually looking at you, judging you or probably even thinking about you. If you've ever been in this or a similar situation there is a good chance that you may have social anxiety.
Social Anxiety (also known as social phobia) is an anxiety disorder brought on by intense and often unreasonable fear of social interactions or social situations. These social situations can range from meeting new people, being in an unfamiliar situation or even just being around strangers in any setting. This phobia can and does have an intensely negative effect on quality of life. Often times people will avoid social settings or certain interactions all together because of the fear brought on by this disorder. It may adversely affect things such as work, personal relationships and confidence. It may also bring about severe depression or be accompanied by panic attacks or extreme anger towards one's self.
I personally suffered from social anxiety for over 20 years. But have been lucky enough to be able to reduce the most drastic issues of my social anxiety without any medication. It's not easy but there are steps and helpful things you can begin taking and doing to help alleviate your social anxiety.
The first step that is required to start overcoming your social anxiety is that you are ready and want to or need to over come the anxiety. Hopefully that is why you are currently reading this. It seems like an easy step but it took me over 20 years to admit that there was an issue that I needed to address and that I was ready to tackle the problem and stop avoiding it. Once you have decided that you are ready to tackle the problem you need to be persistent and determined. It won't happen overnight, it may not happen for a long time but don't give up. Make a mental note to yourself of where you are with your anxiety right now and remember it for the future. Recognize the progress you make and take time to remember where you used to be versus where you currently are. Not only will this give you a confidence boost but you will realize that it is possible to get over the anxiety. Feel free to reward yourself with something you enjoy when you begin to recognize progress.
The Hard Part
Ok so you have social anxiety and you're ready to tackle the problem. This is where the hard work, persistence and determination is going to come in to play.
1. The first and most important thing I can suggest is to talk to someone about what you feel, when you feel it and what the experience is like. This person doesn't necessarily have to be a therapist (although I would suggest that therapy did help me greatly on my journey). But it is much easier if you have someone, a parent, close friend, roommate, or anyone you can talk to regularly about your experiences so that you have support and a form of comfort besides yourself when you have an episode. Also this will give you much needed practice in the art of conversation.
2. Start small and work your way up. It's not necessary to jump in and create a traumatic experience here. Baby steps eventually lead to walking which eventually leads to running. When you are being subjected to social interaction or social situations try to control your thoughts. Negative thinking only leads to negative outcomes. Challenge yourself to think better and motivate yourself with thoughts of 'I can do this' or 'this is going to be awesome, I will make this awesome'. Try hanging around your friends friends or parents friends that you don't know so well without making an excuse to get away. You may not even have to talk but just being around strangers and hearing social interaction may help.
3. Practice your conversational skills as much as possible. It doesn't even matter if you sit and have a conversation with the family dog, practice practice practice so that when the opportunity arises for human on human conversation you are a little less terrified than the one before.
4. Take steps to subject yourself to the people around you. I used to not be able to order food from the counter at McDonald's or grocery shop in the daytime because of all of the people around me. My first little step was to walk inside Walmart and walk around until I wasn't terrified of walking around the store while other people were in it. Every day for a month I walked into Walmart took a stroll around the store and left.
5. BREATHE - Breathing may seem like the most obvious simple thing in the world to do, but when you start having anxiety kick in it becomes 50 times more difficult. You need to mentally be aware of your breathing and control it with deep slow breaths. When you feel that sinking feeling of pressure, embarrassment or fear, stop and take deep slow breaths. Regain control of your mind, the situation is not as bad as you may think it is. Make a mental note, take your time and realize that you are in control, you have the ability to take one more step further than you did the day before. The only thing that can possibly happen to you by taking another step is that you become a better person for it. One trick that helped me when I began having an episode was to start playing one of my favorite songs in my head and focusing on it instead of the outside world, this helped to calm my nerves. You may want to try to come up with something similar that calms you down in times of severe stress.
6. Begin gaining experience in social situations. Once you are no longer terrified of being in certain places you need to train your mind that it's not terrifying having someone talk to you or when you talk to someone. Again you don't need to make a huge leap here. The smallest step I took here was ordering food from the counter at McDonald's. Just to get social interaction. Try using errands to start making conversation. Such as getting your hair cut, the person cutting your hair is almost always going to talk to you while they are cutting your hair. use this as an opportunity to practice your conversation skills. If you have a pet try taking it to petsmart, someone (even if it's just the person ringing up your dog food) will most likely comment about your pet. Take as much time as you need here, it isn't a race to see how fast you can overcome your anxiety but instead it's an exercise to teach your mind that this isn't terrifying.
7. Push your boundaries. This might take a while, but you don't want to become complacent with just saying hello to your barber or hairstylist every 3 weeks. You need to find the edge of your comfort zone and go past it. This is the point where you remember where you were before you started working on your anxiety and look at the progress you have made. You need to realize that only by pushing your boundaries of social interaction will you continually stride towards alleviating your social anxiety. I once read a book called "Feel the Fear and Do It Any Way". This is exactly what you need to do to continue towards your goal of alleviating your social anxiety.
8. Once you have pushed your boundaries and are no longer terrified of simple interaction with people it may be time to start meeting new people. This may be on your own or this may be with your friends, either way this is a big step. One thing I personally did to begin meeting new people was to use rehearsed lines before I actually met someone. The best one is always 'Hi my name is' with a smile and a handshake. you would be amazed at how far you can come by walking the street and simply extending your hand and saying 'hi my name is'.
9. Try and get some new hobbies that involve people. This may be just going to the gym or joining yoga. Anything that may require you to speak to people on a regular basis. Force yourself into social situations that allow you to practice your conversation skills. Also learn to relax. Learning to relax in a stressful situation will allow you to keep your head. Learn to meditate and imagine yourself in social situations while you are completely and totally relaxed and then mimic this in your life.
10. Do not quit. Like all things in life this is a process, the particular steps I have laid out here may not work perfectly for you, these are simply what worked for me. You WILL have setbacks but I guarantee you, you will also have successes. The successes are what matters and they are what bring you towards your goal. Be persistent and determined and you will conquer social anxiety.