Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, but for most people, it's situational. For example, you may experience anxiety when you have an important presentation coming up at work. For others, however, generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder can seriously interfere with everyday activities.
Situations as simple as getting lunch with coworkers or meeting a new person can trigger intense feelings of self-doubt, embarrassment, inhibition and more. Calming anxiety in social settings can feel impossible, but with the right tactics, you'll be well on your way to fully enjoying social atmospheres.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety, also called social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder that involves the fear of interaction with other people. People with social anxiety may fear being negatively judged or overanalyzed by other people, and they may come across as shy, quiet, nervous or even aloof.
Some people who are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder may also feel anxiety in social settings. The main difference between these two disorders is that people with social anxiety don't typically have anxiety about other things, while people with generalized anxiety may feel anxious about many different things.
However, having one of these conditions isn't necessarily a prerequisite to have anxiety in social settings -- people without either disorder may experience occasional social anxiety in situations that are particularly uncomfortable for them, such as speaking in front of a large audience.
In any case, it's important to understand whether the anxiety is situational or persistent.
Rachel Wright, licensed psychotherapist and co-owner of Wright Wellness Center, told CNET that it's normal to experience anxiety in unfamiliar situations, but if it's interfering with the things you want to do on a day-to-day basis (such as meet friends for happy hour or go for a group run), it's important to seek help from a mental health professional.
How to calm anxiety in social settings
Laura Rhodes-Levin, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Founder of The Missing Peace Center, told CNET that calming social anxiety is all about pulling yourself away from your thoughts.
"The key is to lure yourself out of your frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain that's telling you to be uncomfortable, and soothe your body to become present," Rhodes-Levin said. "...Try to focus in on what others are talking about to help distract you. Breathe calmly and remember, nobody else knows what's going on in your head."
Her tips for calming anxiety in social settings include wearing an aromatherapy necklace that can casually be lifted with your hand to trigger calming neurotransmitters; holding something cold in your hand or putting your hands around a cold glass; and playing counting games, such as testing yourself to see how many shades of blue you can see.
Wright's top three tips for calming social anxiety involve knowing yourself well and understanding your anxiety:
1. Take a few moments to get some air and breathe
Whether that is outside or in the bathroom, give yourself the grace of being able to step out of the social situation itself to breathe. 2 minutes of breath work can reset your nervous system.
2. Plan ahead
Decide if you want a non-negotiable leave time or if you want to play it by ear. When it comes to social anxiety, sometimes it can be helpful to know when and how you're leaving a party or gathering. If you can decide this before entering into the situation it will help to limit the amount of overthinking and anxiety in the moment itself.
3. Get clear on what your anxiety is about
Explore the potential causes of your anxiety, especially if it has a specific trigger, and work through them with a therapist, coach, friend or someone else who can help.
Additionally, you can try these other tactics for calming anxiety in social settings:
- When possible, attend events with a trusted friend or family member. This should be someone who you feel very comfortable around and someone who knows
- Recognize that no one is perfect. Social anxiety and perfectionism often coexist, and letting go of perfectionism can be the key to overcoming social anxiety.
- Talk yourself up. Social anxiety is often accompanied by self-shaming thoughts, such as "They think I'm dumb" or "Nobody here likes me." Push those thoughts out and give yourself compliments instead. Try "That story I just told was really funny" or "I look and feel fantastic in this outfit."
Recognizing social anxiety and getting treatment
If you have social anxiety or generalized anxiety that's triggered by social interaction, even the best tactics may not feel like enough. If you're not sure if you have social anxiety, look for the following signs:
- Avoidance behavior: You avoid social events and interactions as much as possible.
- Escape behaviors: You often leave events, such as parties, dinners or concerts, shortly after arriving due to anxious feelings.
- Safety behaviors: You feel like you always need a distraction during social events. For example, you may always have a drink or plate of food at a party, or you feel the need to always play on your phone during casual events.
- Physical symptoms: In social settings, you start to sweat, feel dizzy or light-headed, get a stomach ache, or experience other physical symptoms alongside feelings of anxiousness.
- Premeditated anxiety: You make yourself nervous before even arriving at an event by thinking things like "I'm going to mess up" or "I don't have anything to talk about."
According to the Social Anxiety Association, only cognitive behavioral therapy is proven to effectively and permanently treat social anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves changing the thought and behavior patterns behind your difficulties. If you already have a , you can also discuss medication if you think it might help.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.