My cheeks were blushing.
My mouth became dry.
My hands clammed with sweat.
My heart started racing, faster and faster.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
I struggled to breathe.
I felt sick.
I just wanted to run far, far, far away.
No, I wasn’t about to do some public speech or interview for my dream job. That’s how I felt every time I was about to meet another human being. When you have social anxiety, any interaction with another person can trigger a panic attack.
Every pair of eyeball makes you feel anxious. You feel like everything you do or say is scrutinized, and bound to be judged negatively. You’ll make a mistake. Say something stupid. Make a fool of yourself. Everyone will notice it, remember it, and hate you forever.
To avoid another attack, you avoid people. But that makes it worse, because you’re missing out on so many amazing opportunities. In the worst cases, you’re missing out on your entire life.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Luckily, there are lots of things we can do to overcome social anxiety, so we can go out and live our lives to the full:
1. Breathe It Away
Anxiety is so hard to control. Once that feeling takes hold, you feel so powerless. Until you bring it under control, it’s futile to try anything else. Nothing’ll work. So, how can we keep it under control? Just breathe. Take long, deep breaths from your abdomen.
You see, short, shallow breaths stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the fight-or-flight response that shuts down any logical thinking and triggers anxiety.
Slow, deep breaths, instead, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the relaxation response. That’s why deep breathing is key to relaxation. You may still feel a bit anxious, but now you’re also more in control of your body and able to think things through more carefully.
2. Find the trigger
Now that we’re feeling calmer, we can start exploring why we felt so anxious. Anxiety isn’t an enemy that screws us up for no reason. It’s our alarm system warning us of potential threats. Problem is, it doesn’t always work very well.
Our mind and body remember everything. If not consciously, at least subconsciously. So, when we’re about to do something, our minds think back to all the previous times we’ve gone through something similar. If those experiences weren’t positive, it’ll send out an alarm, warning us there’s danger ahead.
Truth is, there isn’t. Ok, maybe we had a bad experience in the past. But that doesn’t mean the next time will be bad as well. The past is gone. The future is a clean slate.
3. Get Real
Anxiety makes us think that even the smallest mistake is an unforgivable sin that’ll turn us into outcasts. The antidote? Realistic thinking.
For example, if you have a business meeting to go to and are thinking “I have no idea what to say, I’ll stumble my way through it, and make a fool of myself,” take a breathe and reframe it as, “I’m prepared and know what I need to say. Maybe I’ll stumble on a couple of words, but no one will remember it. All they care about is that business gets done.”
That’s a far more likely scenario, isn’t it?
4. Turn anxiety into excitement
Have you ever noticed that anxiety and excitement almost feel the same? Both make you feel butterflies in your stomach, make your hands sweat and your heart race faster. When we label those feelings as anxiety, we focus on everything that could go wrong.
But, when we label them excitement, we imagine all the good things that could come our way. A new world of opportiunities opens up. The best part? Even if you don’t feel excited, telling yourself you’re excited can actually make you excited. Our bodies are amazing like that.
5. Focus on the here and now
Anxiety makes us focus on ourselves and the millions ways in which we can mess up. That just makes us feel more anxious. The soliution is to focus on the moment. Turn your attention to what is.
If you’re talking to someone, listen attentively to what he’s saying, not on the wrong things you may be saying. If you’re giving a presentation, think about the points you’re making, not about what could go wrong. Focus on the task at hand, and be fully present in the moment. It’s hard, but it helps. A lot.
6. Just go for it
Anxiety makes you want to run far, far, away, and then lock yourself into a safe room where nothing and no one can hurt you. But, that doesn’t work, does it? We still get hurt, and we miss out on so much to boot.
The only way to beat it is to do the very thing you’re anxious about. Take a few deep breathes, figure out what makes you anxious, reframe your unrealistic fears into a realistic scenario you can feel excited about, keep your focus on the moment, and go for it.
Go slow, though. You don’t need to do it all at once.
The Bottom Line
Struggling with things and situations that are a walk in the park for most people doesn’t make you a failure or a loser. You’re an amazing human being, and much stronger than you think you are. You just need the right tools to deal with anxiety. Next time, it rears its ugly head, you’ll know what to do.
Have you ever experienced social anxiety? If so, how do you deal with it?