Updated: Oct 5
Are you shy in social situations, but a chatterbox at home?
Do you maybe rely on other people to speak up in meetings?
Do you panic at the sound of your name when called upon to answer a question or give your opinion?
But is it more than just shyness?
Social anxiety (or social phobia), is a continuing, and overwhelming fear of social situations that has the potential to have significant impacts on your everyday life. It is sadly, quite common, with five in a hundred having some degree of the phobia, being more prevalent in women.
But the good news is, there are some great "self-help" tips out there that can be used on their own, or in conjunction with other treatments. Before I list some tips that I have found to be helpful, I am going to delve into a bit of the psychology behind why we may get those anxious feels in social situations.
Now I just want to include a bit of a caveat here first - while I do have a degree in psychology, I am not a practicing psychologist, so I definitely want to advocate seeking professional help if your social anxiety is having a significant impact on your life (I have provided some great links at the end of this article).
Pavlov and his dogs
I am going to jump back to my "Intro to Psych" days for a minute, and brief you on classical conditioning, a type of learning that occurs through associations.
In Ivan Pavlov’s original experiment, involving dogs, a neutral stimulus (the sound of a metronome) was associated with an environmental, or unconditioned stimulus (food), in order to produce a naturally occurring reflex, or the unconditioned response of salivation.
In simplistic terms, when it comes to feeling socially anxious, we may find ourselves associating people (an unconditioned stimulus), with anxiety (an unconditioned response).
Why we should avoid avoiding
Our natural instinct when we fear something, whether it be people, things, or situations, is to avoid them. Why? To protect ourselves.
Sure, avoidance will provide relief in the short term, but in the long term it may just exacerbate our fears, and have wider implications on our quality of life.
Think about the simple (but common) example of avoiding asking for help because you might be afraid of speaking to those in authority (e.g. a teacher, lecturer or your boss). You might see it as easier to just stick with it, or to try to sort things out yourself. In a classroom environment, this may see you fall behind. In a work situation this could put yourself or others in harms way.
What if we took the idea of classical conditioning and flipped it on it's head? We could confront the unwanted learned responses we have developed to particular social situations that are causing us to feel anxious, and turn them around to become more helpful and beneficial.
I have made that sound super easy, but just taking small incremental steps will undoubtedly help to build up our confidence, and cope with more situations.
Here are some examples I have learnt, and I use in my day to day life, some of which I prepare myself for mentally, before applying them in real life.
I have said it before, and I will say it again! Don't underestimate the power of your clothing. I couldn't agree more with the perception that clothing is like our chosen second skin. Some of my clothing choices can be a little loud, and I often use this to my advantage in social situations. Take for example, a scenario where you get a comment on an item from a brand you are really passionate about, or maybe it's a vintage piece that has an interesting story. Imagine the conversation you could engage in! You could go even further, and before donning such a piece, you could prepare something interesting to say about it.
Give someone a sincere and genuine compliment. Not only is it a great thing to do, feeling nice for both the giver and receiver, but it is such a simple way to kick start a conversation. You never know where it could lead!
Engage in question times! I am sure you have had the right answer to a question, or a great idea, and kicked yourself after for not offering it up. Did thoughts like "What if I look like a fool?", or "Someone else will answer" run through your head? Thought so! I feel like the saying "There's no such thing as a stupid question" should apply to responses in these situations. Maybe you could try starting with commenting and offering your opinion on social media, engaging with trusted and like minded individuals to get the ball rolling and build up your confidence.
Just engage in general conversation. Don't overlook those simply questions like "How was your weekend?", "How is your day going?", or "What's that you have for lunch?". Or why not join in on an existing conversation. The staff room at lunch time is a great opportunity to engage with people.
Try to say yes more to social outings! Going out with people you know and trust should only build your confidence. Hey, they wouldn't have invited you if they didn't want you there! Right?!
Of course you will be anxious to begin with when stepping out of your comfort zone. Your anxiety levels will naturally rise, but then they will fall, and over time you will become habituated to this feeling. Riding out emotions like this can be super powerful!
So next time you hear your name in a meeting, as you are prompted for your opinion, sure you might tense up initially, but remember this will fade. You will remind yourself that no one is judging you, and that your response is not foolish. Then you will simply answer the question just like you have a million times before!
Let me know if you have found this useful, or if you have any tips for overcoming social anxiety that you have picked up from your own experiences. I would love to know!
Leave me a comment or let me know via my 'Contact' page.
Helplines and support groups in the United Kingdom that can offer expert advice for yourself or loved ones.