Seven ways to overcome social anxiety and build confidence

Some people really love being the centre of attention, and then some people - not so much.


Though most people will have experienced sweating a little too much (and then having to worry about that), maybe blushing if made fun of, or even shaking when faced with a social situation, the physical and emotional reactions are not something that makes those who experience it feel very good about themselves.


Social anxiety can be expressed in a number of different ways, most commonly a feeling of panic or anxiety when faced with a situation where other people are involved: speaking in front of a crowd, meeting new people, a date or a job interview are all situations where you might not be feeling like your stellar self.


In some severe cases, it can even prevent people from putting themselves in certain social situations altogether, i.e. stopping that individual from making friends, going to work, speaking up when faced with a difficult situation, or even basically going outside.


Sometimes your brain can be a little overzealous in its attempt to keep you safe from harm, activating your ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response in situations that don’t necessarily call for it. That fear these individuals experience is common amongst all humans, with all of us that have lived a normal life knowing what it means to be scared of something; though when it starts to take control and dictate what you can and can’t do, or interferes in basic day-to-day functioning, it’s time to act.


There are a couple of things you can do to build your confidence and build social anxiety and relishing in the experiences that you might have once dreaded...

1. Find the root of the issue

Speak to a professional or someone you trust about why you might be having these issues.


Have you had a few bad experiences, do you think everyone is staring at you and thinking something nasty? Every single person on the face of the planet is the centre of their universe with the rest of us merely transient characters in their story - chance is, no one is paying attention to you stumble over that well-concealed step in the walkway. Or even if they did, you might make someone giggle, and then they’ll go back to worrying about the other stressors in their life - for better or worse, you’re not that important.


Not a defeatist attitude to have, but rather empowering and reinforcing in the way that you’re reminded of your place in your life and those that matter to you (I.e. those of whom think that you’re very important!), without spending/wasting time worrying about the thoughts of other people that honestly don’t matter.


Change your thoughts, and you change your narrative - try a realistic lens, and see if it makes things clearer.


Note: If you find that your social anxiety is getting in the way of you living (not just living your best life, which you should also be doing), speaking to a Mental Health Professional may be your ticket to the Confidence Car onboard the Self-Trust Train. Is that totally lame? Yes. Did I make myself giggle just then? Also yes. But that’s the beauty of working with someone to understand and appreciate who you are, terrible sense of humour and all.


Working with a professional to undertake Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, amongst other tools, may assist in targeting automatic negative thoughts and behaviours and assist in the creation of a plan to change those thinking patterns, or otherwise accepting and ‘making room’ for the negative emotions that are inevitable. Seek help if you feel like you need it, or want pointers on where to start.


2. Understand your ‘Safety Behaviours’

We’ve all made excuses to get out of things with people that we normally love to see for various reasons (and sometimes where family is involved, love to see might be too strong of a word), but when you start to make up excuses not to attend any social events you may want to ask yourself why.


Do you never speak up in a meeting, for fear of what other people might think of you? Do you fidget or distract yourself in public to avoid eye contact or small talk with people? Or maybe have a couple of drinks before a social event to calm the nerves? Some people might behave in such a way that makes them feel safer and more in control of situations that may invoke a feeling of anxiety or fear.


Once you understand what you do and why you might be doing it, you can take steps towards minimising your fear response to the anxiety-provoking stimulus.

There are a couple of ways you might be able to do this:


  • Exposure therapy - make the effort to catch up with a friend, or go to a group exercise class

  • Interpersonal/communication skills training

  • Psychological/cognitive/behavioural therapies (see the note above)

Some behaviours, such as avoiding parties because you can’t stand the thought of meeting new people, will actually make the anxiety worse as the limited exposure means you aren’t able to acquire or practise the necessary interpersonal skills that would make further socialising easier.

The act of avoidance may also mean the fear your experiencing is compounded, as your brain doesn’t want you (it’s favourite thing in the world) to experience psychological pain as a result of something it’s making you feel - so the scary thing becomes even scarier to remove any potential dissonance, and there you have a self-perpetuating cycle.


This is why it’s important to understand what behaviours you perform when faced with an anxiety-provoking situation, and a way to do this could be to write it down: the situation, the level of fear out of 100, and your reaction/behaviour.


This will help you identify any patterns of behaviour, and give you a better understanding of what could potentially be the cause of any negative emotions. (3)


3. Take a deep breath

If you find that you’re more of a physical being and experience shaking, sweating or increased heart rate as a result of your anxieties, you may be experiencing an uptake in your sympathetic nervous system. This means that your body is getting ready to face which danger it’s perceiving and turns you into a trembling, sweaty mess - not so fun!


Some studies support Mindfulness-based stress reduction as an appropriate way to reduce emotional reactivity whilst supporting emotional regulation (1,2), with participants also experiencing significant changes in clinical symptoms compared to those in the control group both immediately post-intervention and three months later (2).


Mindfulness is spoken about a fair bit these days, but as we learn more and more about the benefits of this activity we realise that there’s a good reason for the buzz. Being associated with a whole host of health benefits, both in terms of physical and emotional health, Mindfulness-based stress reduction can be an easy (mostly) way of reducing the physicality of your anxiety response.


Take a deep breath and count to one… two… three…. And then breath out. Repeat for a minute, and see how different you feel.


This simple act is activating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which will calm the racing heart. Give yourself a break, and give mindfulness a go: it’s free, simple, and you don’t need to do anything more than sit and breath.


4. Let's get physical

A randomised control trial on participants diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder found that aerobic exercise also led to significant changes in clinical symptoms, both immediately post-intervention and three months later (2).


We all know that exercise plays an important role in ensuring pretty much every part of your body and mind can work effectively, so it’s no surprise that exercise can have a significant effect on those experiencing social anxiety as well.


There are a host of benefits associated with exercising regularly that may also assist in the education of anxious feelings: increases in endorphins and other neurotransmitters that allow cognitive function to flourish, aesthetic changes (loss of weight, more muscle tone), and other physical benefits.


You may decide to work out with a group of people, which would incidentally expose you to more social situations which could also assist in lessening your fear response when the time calls for it. If you can’t stand working out with other people and sweat grosses you out, (1) don’t move to Queensland and (2) maybe start with a walk and see how you feel.


Three people walking through a park
Photo by George Pak

5. It takes a village

Look at your support network: do you feel drained and anxious after spending time with those closest to you? It could be that the anxiety you feel in a social setting is not you, but rather how you’re made to feel in those situations.


Take note of how you feel after spending time with your significant other, family and friends, and then when you get a minute truly reflect and be honest about how you’re being treated and spoken to.


Some people may feel down about themselves and as though they won’t offer anything of value to a conversation, those anxious thoughts further feeding antisocial behaviours. These anxious or self-deprecating thoughts may be learned, i.e. if a significant figure in your life consistently puts you down and makes out that you don’t have much to offer, you might even start believing them. If you identify a relationship like this within your life, work with a therapist or someone you trust to build up your internal strength and have a serious conversation about boundaries and limits.


It’s all well and good to just say “have a conversation”, but for someone with anxiety, the thought of speaking up is worse than the behaviours that have led to it: working with someone you trust or that does this for a living might help you understand what behaviours aren’t okay, and how you can approach these difficult situations with support and poise.


6. Practice some basic social skills

Some individuals with social phobias or anxiety may feel this way due to their own social skill deficits (7).


Social skills can involve eye contact (but obviously not staring people down), smiling when greeting others, using an appropriate tone of voice for the situation, appropriate emotional regulation depending on the situation, and expressing options if need be.


For those anxious folk out there, even just reading this list is enough for you to develop a cold sweat, but never fear: you can learn. As mentioned previously, you may be able to chat to a professional about various therapies or a plan to build up confidence and competence where social skills are concerned.


You may also be able to learn from those around you by really listening to how people approach and start conversations, how they ask questions and get a conversation going. Watch how people react to certain things, good and bad, and then slowly perform these behaviours yourself. Please don’t be creepy and then blame us, but mindfully watch and listen, and use your existing social settings as a classroom.


Chat to someone you trust, and ask them questions - how would they feel if you asked them ‘this’, and how should you respond? Practice makes perfect, and working on skills is a great way to become more confident in those actions.


Become informed: own what you know.

I love psychology and skin care. I am a bit of an introvert at the best of times, but if you tell me you use soap on your face I will launch into a 15-minute speech about how what you’re doing is terrible for your skin, and then formulate a plan to move forward.


I’m obviously a delight to be around, but further, than that, I have a passion for something and might know more than the average Joe. When conversing with others, should you be increasingly passionate about a certain subject and that happens to be the topic of conversation, share your knowledge and start the discussion that way.


It could lead to a healthy debate, but that just means that you can also learn how to trust yourself and also possibly learn something new.


Be ‘that’ person, and own what you know; people won’t always have the same opinion as you, but that’s great! Opinions add colour to the palette that is life, with different strokes of the same brush creating the reality we’re all a part of.


If you have a passion about something, read more. Investigate, ask questions, and seek out people that may also have an opinion about it, whether those opinions be the same as yours or not. This is a way of socialising with others, but also increasing your confidence and knowledge in something that you actually want to know more about - win, win!


In conclusion

Humans are social creatures, and that statement is as true as it is cliched. There are a host of benefits associated with building strong relationships with others, including greater life expectancy (5,6), and some possible risks with those who are lonelier and/or isolated from others, including depression and later-life cognitive decline (5,6). Working on social confidence and decreasing instances of social anxiety can ultimately allow you to lead a healthier, happier life. Give a few of the steps about a go, and see how they make you feel; it’s not about being the centre of attention, it’s about just being okay with the attention in general. There’s nothing to lose, and years of life to gain (5).

Photo by Elle Hughes
Two young women laughing together

 

Finding the help you need

If you're looking for support to help overcome social or generalised anxiety; booking a free 15 -minute consultation with us at Online Psychologists Australia could be the first step to a happier and healthier life.


You'll be matched with a professional, experienced psychologist that best fits your unique needs.


Book your free 15 minute consultation today

 

References:

(1) Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(1), 83–91.


(2) Jazaieri, H., Goldin, P. R., Werner, K., Ziv, M., & Gross, J. J. (2012). A randomized trial of MBSR versus aerobic exercise for social anxiety disorder. Journal of clinical psychology, 68(7), 715–731. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.21863Antony, M., & Swinson, R. (2017). The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming Your Fear (3rd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.


(3) Antony, M., & Swinson, R. (2017). The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming Your Fear (3rd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.


(4) Lucas, B. (2019). Social Wellness in 8 Easy Steps. Cone Health. Retrieved 7 September 2021, from https://www.conehealth.com/services/behavioral-health/8-ways-to-better-social-wellness/.


(5) Strengthen relationships for longer, healthier life - Harvard Health. Harvard Health. (2011). Retrieved 7 September 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/strengthen-relationships-for-longer-healthier-life.


(6)Strong relationships, strong health - Better Health Channel. betterhealth.vic.gov.au. Retrieved 7 September 2021, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/Strong-relationships-strong-health.


(7) Social Skills Training (SST) - HealthEngine Blog. HealthEngine Blog. (2008). Retrieved 7 September 2021, from https://healthengine.com.au/info/social-skills-training-sst.

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