Anyone who’s gotten the jitters before a date knows how uncomfortable and unassured they can make you feel. But, for many, social anxiety doesn’t only strike just before a date. Delivering a presentation, initiating a confrontation, or even just going to hang out with friends might trigger social anxiety. You never know what might happen when you interact with other people, and the idea of doing so can be unnerving. You may feel like you’d rather just curl up in bed than deal with the world.
All that said, isolating yourself forever isn’t a viable long-term solution. There are small, practical steps you can take toward dealing with your social anxiety. Think of it like exercise: the more you exercise your social muscle, the stronger it gets. But, like all kinds of exercise, you can’t just go to the gym after months of inactivity and start blasting away. So here are some small steps you can take toward building your social muscle.
First and foremost, you’ll want to assess the magnitude of your anxiety. For some, their anxiety is more of a speed bump whereas, for others, it’s a sinkhole. Ask yourself, “What happens when I feel social anxiety?” Do you just get a bit quiet and irritated? Or do you notice feelings of self-loathing or have thoughts of harming yourself or others?
It’s important to be honest with yourself here. Needing help is not a crime, and part of improving your life is knowing when you need help. So, if your anxiety is troubling you, consider seeking mental health treatment. If deemed appropriate by a healthcare provider, there are multiple prescription options that can help combat anxious thoughts.
Perhaps your anxiety manifests when you feel compelled to make small talk with a cashier at the grocery store. Maybe you feel it when you sit next to someone you don’t know on an airplane. Or you might even feel it when the delivery driver drops off your breakfast burrito. People’s triggers manifest during different scenarios, and it’s important to understand yours.
Make a list of all the scenarios and situations where you commonly experience social anxiety, and figure out what’s shared between them. Do you feel anxiety when you’re expected to perform, like speaking in front of a group? Or do you feel anxiety when you spontaneously fall into an unplanned interaction? Identifying what bothers you will help you take proactive steps toward addressing it later.
Part of changing your behavior proactively is anticipating how you’ll behave reactively. The reason the language of triggers is so illustrative is that it invokes the idea of a system of cause and effect. When you pull the trigger of a gun, it sets off a pre-designed chain reaction that ultimately fires a bullet. There’s a distinct sequence of cause and effect. Similarly, when you experience one of your triggers, there’s a certain reaction that you’ve been conditioned to repeat.
For example, when you enter a situation or environment that typically makes you anxious, you might stop breathing regularly. Quick, short breaths deprive your brain of oxygen, further triggering your body’s defense mechanisms and making you feel more anxious. Or you might start sweating, your mouth might get dry, and you might feel like you want to escape. Figure out what your particular symptoms are so you can anticipate how you’ll feel. That way, you can gradually learn to cope when you trigger your anxiety on purpose.
Why would you want to trigger your anxiety intentionally? Unless you work at it, your response behavior is something automatic, programmed, outside of your control. When they stub their toe (trigger), English-speaking children exclaim “ouch!” (response) whereas Japanese-speaking children exclaim “itai!” Neither group of children associated either word with sudden pain from birth, but they learned to do so over time. In the same way, you’ve learned to respond to feelings of social anxiety with your own behaviors.
One of the best ways to change your response behavior to feelings of anxiety is exposure therapy. By carefully and systematically exposing yourself to the exact things you’re afraid of, you can slowly build your resilience to them. You can approach a situation that normally triggers you anticipating how you’ll react and choose a different behavior. Rather than look down and away from the cashier, for example, you can take a deep breath, look them in the eye, and give them a small compliment. Perhaps they too are feeling anxiety at that moment, and your small gesture of human kindness may rekindle a spark of hope in their heart.
For many people, social anxiety manifests as far more than just the jitters before a date. It can be an incredibly scary, challenging, and potentially debilitating experience. And depending on how much your anxiety personally affects you, it may be important to seek help. However, the good news is that — though it be long and laborious — the path to confidence is there, should you choose to walk it. When in doubt, walk in the direction of your fears. Often, it is also the way to growth.