My friend Emily once told me that attending get togethers with people she didn't know well made her feel like she was about to have a meltdown. She would feel butterflies in her stomach, her heart would race, and she would struggle to think clearly. When she said this I was shocked...not because I had no idea that she suffered from social phobia, but because until that moment I had no idea that I did too! I had felt that way for so long, since I was a young child, that I assumed everyone had that same reaction to entering a room full of strangers. It was only when Emily described it as something not totally normal, and with an actual name - social phobia - that the penny dropped for me. You mean...some people can walk into a room of strangers and feel zero anxiety? This was a revelation!
Over the years that followed I got more of a handle on my social phobia and began to work on various ways to overcome it. It makes normal life just so much more challenging that I had a strong incentive to figure out some solutions. For a start, feeling anxious when faced with strangers isn't the extent of social phobia. It can cause you to feel nervous about being judged or criticized by others, which can make it really hard to be around people, even the ones you know and love.
One of the really tough things is that our bodies tend to react when they're feeling this way. We might feel our heart beating super fast, or find it hard to catch our breath. Some people might even start shaking, feel sick to their stomach, or sweat a lot more than usual.
But it's not just about the moments when we're around people. People with social phobia can spend days, or even weeks, worrying about a social event that's coming up. It's like a dark cloud hanging over us that just won't go away.
This fear can get so intense that it starts messing with daily life. We might start skipping work, saying no to parties or other social events, or avoid going to public places. I know that was true of me for years, and still is to a certain extent. While my husband and kids love to go to amusement parks, for example, I get overwhelmed very quickly and don't enjoy the crowds of people at ALL. It's partly social phobia and partly just having a sensitive nervous system, but my life isn't too badly impacted by avoiding those rare occasions. In the past I would have also avoided a lot of the more regular social events that I now enjoy, though, like a summer get together at the neighbors house, or a school function.
My Idea of the Opposite of a Good Time
The other tough part about social phobia is that people dealing with it often feel really self-aware and worry a lot about embarrassing themselves or making mistakes in front of others. And then, after they've been in a social situation, they might spend hours or even days thinking about what they said or did, worrying that they messed up or upset someone. All of these thoughts and feelings can make it really hard to move past their fears.
This is the reality of social phobia, but the good news is that it's something that really can be dealt with effectively, given some time and attention. So, let's dive into some strategies!
It all begins with understanding and acknowledging your fear. Knowing what triggers your anxiety can help you prepare for or possibly avoid those situations. I used to keep a journal so I could write down and keep track of my triggers, which helped me understand the patterns and feel a sense of control.
2. Mindfulness and Meditation:
Practicing mindfulness can help you stay present and not get swept up in anxious thoughts about past or future social interactions. A simple technique is to focus on your breath or the different feelings in your body. This can bring calmness and a sense of grounding.
3. Positive Affirmations:
I know they get a bad rap, but a daily dose of positive affirmations really can shift your mindset. Try writing a list of the various beliefs you have about yourself in social situations, and then write a contrasting, positive belief that you can replace it with. For example, if you write "I know I'll say something stupid and everyone will think badly of me", write a new belief like "I am usually really good at knowing the right thing to say and people tend to respond well to me". Then say the positive affirmations every morning and evening and watch to see if your mindset shifts over time.
4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):
This form of therapy is considered highly effective in treating social phobia. It helps you to identify negative thought patterns and provides you with tools to challenge and change them.
5. Exposure Therapy:
This might sound scary, but the idea is to gradually and repeatedly expose yourself to the social situations that you fear. This can help you to become less sensitive over time. It's important to take small steps. Maybe start by simply going to a café alone and gradually build up to larger social gatherings.
6. Healthy Lifestyle Choices:
Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and good sleep can greatly impact your mood and energy levels. Remember, your mental health is deeply connected to your physical health. I identified years ago that if I drank an ordinary cup of coffee at any point during the day, about 6 hours later I would be wracked with anxiety for no apparent reason. Because it wasn't an instant trigger it only became apparent once I started tracking my anxiety in my journal and noticed the correlation. See if you can track similar things in your life that either cause less or more anxiety over time.
7. Professional Help:
It's OK to reach out to mental health professionals. Therapists and psychologists are equipped with the skills to guide you through this journey. Never hesitate to seek help.
Hypnotherapy might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it has been found to be very effective in dealing with all sorts of anxiety. Hypnotherapy can reach the subconscious mind, helping you to shift negative thought patterns related to social interactions so that your triggers affect you less and less over time. Clear Minds has an incredible Anxiety Melting Essentials Pack, but we also offer the following stand-alone sessions that might be exactly what you need to target the way that your social phobia most affects you:
The journey to overcoming social phobia is just that, a journey. It requires patience, self-love, and understanding. I can happily say that these days most people think I'm an extrovert when they first meet me, as I seem so comfortable socially. It still sometimes takes me a little more effort to get to that comfort level than most people, but I know the way there and I am so much happier feeling that level of openess and freedom around other people.
We're here, rooting for you every step of the way. You are stronger than your fears, and the world is waiting to connect with you. Embrace it!