Time was when someone with social anxiety was supposed to be merely shy or most, an introvert. Now however it is accepted that social anxiety is much more serious than ordinary shyness and actually a personality disorder. Falling under the larger group of anxiety disorders, Social Anxiety Disorder or SAD is marked by an excessive and persistent fear of social and performance situations. The good news is that though SAD can be debilitating and thus a serious obstacle to forming personal relationships, it is ultimately treatable; so if you believe you suffer from this condition, here are a few ways to cope.
Since shy people and those suffering from social anxiety share many common traits, SAD can be difficult to diagnose and differentiate from normal shyness. In fact some experts claim it is a condition that is being over-diagnosed and over-treated. Most estimates place the number of Americans with social phobia at about 15 million, but critics counter that those estimates include many people who are merely shy, not sick1. While anxiety disorder can be diagnosed only by trained mental health professional, it is usually easy to spot some of its symptoms – if you often feel giving way to feelings of panic, fear, uneasiness and an inability to be still or relaxed, take heed. People suffering from social anxiety are unnaturally sensitive to social situations where they believe they are being judged or evaluated. This condition may be generalized as when a person with SAD has fears related to most social and performance situations such as speaking to authority figures, going on dates, starting conversations, giving speeches or it may be expressed only in specific situations, like for instance if a person only feared public speaking or were only afraid of meeting a person of the opposite sex. If any of this is true of you, the problem is much more than mere shyness and you would do best to see a therapist or mental health expert.
Identify the source
If you are seeing a therapist, he/she will probably be working on this line, but if not, try and identify the source of your anxiety. Childhood memories and traumatic experiences in the past may be at the root of social anxiety of some adults, while others may be dealing with social phobia due to self-image or self-esteem issues. Once the root of the social anxiety is discovered, you can look for specific ways to address the situation and thus decrease the anxiety – for instance if you have body image issues, following a nutritious diet and working out will complement other efforts to cope with your social anxiety disorder.
Practice self-help techniques
One of the best ways to lessen anxiety in social situations is to practice deep breathing exercises. Such exercises where one inhales deeply and takes deep cleansing breaths before exhaling slowly, are designed to produce a sense of calmness, which can be helpful if you are about to enter a social anxiety provoking situation. Also watch out for self-talk messages in social situations, and replace the negative thoughts with more affirming and positive thoughts. One of the most effective ways to do this is to give yourself a pep-talk as you leave to meet your date or someone important. Look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I look great today” or “I feel good about myself”. Of course it will help hugely if you are actually neatly turned out. Once your subconscious self absorbs these positive feelings, they are bound to lessen anxiety and manifest in your outward behavior. Yet another way to evoke positive thoughts is to find a quiet place and take your mind back to previous occasions of success and happiness. Remembering them will recreate feelings of calmness and assurance in your mind and help you to move ahead with confidence.
The internet is a great tool for making friends and finding dating partners. For people with social anxiety like you, joining a dating website means reaching out to other members at your own pace and according to compatible personality types. An online date service already handles the nerve-racking first contact. By perusing online dating profiles, you can start getting to know someone without having to say a word. Moreover the early stages of a relationship can even be conducted online – this will let you interact freely and minus your inhibitions which are more likely to surface in an actual dating scene. Once you are comfortable using a dating site, you can go on to explore social networking sites which are also amazing ways to make new friends online.
Get involved in volunteer work
If you have difficulty in approaching strangers, consider getting involved with a cause close to your heart? Look for opportunities in your town or city where you can offer your services to help with your favorite cause. If you are an animal lover, maybe you could also help out at the community animal clinic and thus find a way to chat up the nice-looking vet there. On the other hand, if books are all that you are interested in, how about offering to catalogue and file the possessions of your community library? This way you will not only spend your time doing something you like but also open up yourself to meeting others. Above all, helping out others will keep the focus of social interactions on others and thus make things more comfortable for you.
Enlist the help of friends and family
Instead of enduring consecutive nights of discomfort in a bar or nightclub, let your friends and family know that you are interested in meeting new people. This is a good idea firstly because they are aware of your social anxiety and hence will be careful to set you up with a partner who is compatible with your personality type. More importantly meeting new people will become that much easier for you when accompanied by a familiar face.
Very gradually, take steps to mingle more socially. If you are a victim of social anxiety, you probably prefer to stick to interests which are private in nature and do not require any teamwork or even a partner to pursue. As such, things like find stamp-collecting or gardening often figure as the most preferred leisure activities among introverts. While there is nothing wrong in doing things alone, you also need to explore interests which allow you to do things with other people. How about joining a bowling league where you can play as part of a team or even a book club where members meet regularly to have book readings or discuss reviews. Such hobbies are not only enjoyable in themselves but great for bringing people from various backgrounds and professions together. Best of all a common hobby will automatically offer itself as a topic for interesting conversation so you need not start sweating at the prospect of making small talk with a potential date.
Keep dates activity-based
Once you meet someone who you would like to get to know better, you need to meet him/her in a personal context, outside the cooking class or library perhaps where you got acquainted with each other. Unfortunately for a person suffering from anxiety disorder, many of the actions in a conventional date would be enough to bring up a full-blown expression of the symptoms. Thus you may find the prospect of making eye contact, keeping a conversation going, and eating in front of someone else extremely problematic. Instead go about planning a date which is activity based so that the focus veers away from exclusive social interaction to doing something enjoyable together. Shared interests like hiking, carpentry or dancing will keep both you and your date busy, give you something to talk about, and at the end of the evening bring you closer together. If dinner must be part of the date, consider going to an offbeat restaurant or other establishment that will keep you entertained such as a theme-based restaurant or make-your-own pizza. If you both are into sports, you could go watch a football game or drop in at the local driving range to hit a few balls. Other places of interest like a zoo, carnival, circus or amusement park can also be great dating ideas if you wish to go easy on the activity but keep it casual and non-threatening at the same time.
Despite your best efforts at remaining calm, you may find anxiety rearing its ugly head in certain situations. Under such circumstances, try and create some distractions in your mind since focusing on the anxiety will only heighten it. Once anxiety symptoms start, shift your mind and thoughts to something else, and try to stay with the new thoughts. A distraction can be as simple as thinking about what you want to do tomorrow, calling someone on your cell phone, or paying attention to something else that does not make you feel uncomfortable.
Finally be patient. Coping with social anxiety cannot be done in giant leaps. Take baby steps in decreasing your anxiety – for instance if your goal is to attend a large party, practice beforehand by going to smaller social events. Try and avoid high anxiety situations unless you have successfully negotiated low or medium anxiety situations. The main thing is to be aware of your anxiety triggers and plan your interactions accordingly.