In these bleak January days, I have become the ultimate homebody. I have come up with every excuse imaginable to stay in the comfort of my own home. Too sick, too tired, too cold outside—you name it, I’ve used it. My social anxiety always seems to be amplified at this time of year, because not only am I nervous to go out, but it’s also dark and minus 30 outside.
For as long as I can remember, I have had moments of feeling nervous before social events. Everything from parties, to meeting someone for coffee, to family gatherings. The feeling doesn’t always come, but when it does it can be paralyzing. I find myself asking all sorts of questions: who will be there, am I comfortable talking about myself, will I fit in?
These questions, although objectively harmless, can hold a lot of weight when you’re feeling anxious.
Repeatedly bowing out of social engagements at the last second doesn’t feel good. Initially you might feel a fleeting moment of relief - like you’ve dodged a bullet - but then a wave of guilt can set in. You might feel like you’ve let down your friends, or missed out on a fun time just because you were too nervous to go.
I decided to address this issue after a friend gently broached the subject with me. He asked how he could help make going out easier for me. What activities would I not be nervous about going to? Did I get more wary going out for late nights? Would I prefer brunches?!
I was honestly touched hearing my friend ask these considerate questions. He was trying to help and find solutions. I had a bit of an epiphany in that moment: if other people are making an effort to help me, I want to make an effort too.
How to take control of your thoughts
The core issue with social anxiety is that nervous thoughts can accumulate and build upon themselves. This process can be explained by an official psychological term: rumination. Psychologist Ryan Howes explains that rumination is defined as the compulsive tendency to overthink. The idea is you get one anxious thought, which leads to another, and a snowball effect occurs.
Rumination can turn normal nervousness about a social event into paralyzing anxiety if you don't stop it first.
For example, you start out innocently wondering who will be at a party you’ve planned on attending. How well do you know these people? Will you connect with them? Will you be left all alone with no one to talk to? Before you realize it, you’re imagining worst-case scenarios where you’re completely isolated in a crowded room. Seemingly benign thoughts can quickly escalate into overwhelming fears. Although this thought process sounds pretty daunting, there are ways to break this cycle!
The most important tactic to stop ruminating is to recognize that you’re doing it. This may sound simple, but when you’re caught up in your thoughts, it can be difficult to take a step back and see what you’re doing. By recognizing that you’re in this cycle, you can start to take steps to stop it. Anything from exercise to meditation to bubble baths can distract you from your worries and alleviate your anxiety.
You can also reach out to others to support you if you’re worrying about a social engagement. Have a friend arrive with you so you don’t have to be concerned about not knowing anyone. Plan future activities yourself—this way you can invite friends you know, choose activities you enjoy, and pick places you are comfortable going.
If your social anxiety and rumination have reached a level where they are affecting your life and happiness, therapy can be an effective resource. Psychologists can help identify the root of your stress, and recommend ways to overcome anxiety.
Tips to help relieve social anxiety
I’m not a psychologist, but as someone who has dealt with social anxiety, these are a few of the things that have helped me.
- If you’re nervous to meet new people, or to try something new—be brave! You won’t regret it. If it’s not fun (it usually is) or people aren’t nice (they usually are) you’ve still learned something valuable. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela - courage is not the absence of fear, it’s about being afraid but doing it anyways. You can do this!
- If anxious thoughts flow into your mind and you find yourself ruminating, acknowledge that they are just thoughts. They don’t have to define your actions.
- Consult the Worry Tree to track the source of your anxiety, and to figure out whether or not you’re able to do something about your thoughts. If you are, come up with an action plan to address whatever is bothering you, if you aren’t, let those thoughts go.
- Try volunteering. Studies show that this shift of focus to the well-being of others can counteract feelings of social anxiety.
- Fitness classes can be a good social option. You are interacting with others without being pressured to make small talk.
- It’s a process. If you don’t make it out this time, try your best to go to the next thing!
By being aware and taking control of your thoughts, you can stop the rumination process in its tracks. Making even a small effort to connect with others can have remarkable physical and psychological benefits.
Whether or not you experience social anxiety, if you sense that a loved one does, ask them what would make them more comfortable—you’d be surprised how much simply asking might help them.
If you're struggling with social anxiety, you can always talk to an empathetic listener.
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