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5 'Secret' Ways to Manage Social Anxiety

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“Anxiety‘s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” — Jodi Picoult

Anxiety is part of my everyday life. When people wake up, they may be excited about their day, or feel relaxed. For me, the anxiety bubble slowly creeps in and becomes like an extra layer of skin I can’t take off. The other trigger is social anxiety. Meeting new people or entering into a group of people is not just scary but also overwhelms the heart. The first time I noticed social anxiety was when I worked as a social worker at a nonprofit organization.

I was conducting an interview with a father who, little did I know, turned out to be a lawyer. Somehow, during the interview, things took a turn for the worse and I came into this unsuspecting hot seat. My head began to emit heat like a candle, noticing the stares. How did I somehow become grilled? Then, in tiny drops that rung from my hair like a faucet, I noticed the pit-pat sound of my paperwork on my clipboard. It wasn’t like sweat; it was like large raindrops dripping over my paperwork, so much so that his wife offered me a hand towel. In my head, I wanted to run toward the door.

According to “Social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. You could say social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people.”

Dealing with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one thing. Dealing with social situations can be a whole different beast. I still have anxiety approaching new people, new places and those stares. On one episode of “Friends,” Rachel and Phoebe run together. Phoebe runs freely and Rachel feels embarrassed. Rachel replies later, “Phoebe, they have eyes.” Totally. They do have eyes and a judgy feeling that causes me to sweat, at times profusely.

The Huffington Post states: “The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that more than one-third of those with social anxiety waited 10 years or more to speak with a doctor about their symptoms.” That’s 10 years of dealing with something you probably didn’t know you had. Or even worse, you realized you had it but you never really dealt with it in a meaningful way. Through the years, I have learned to manage the sweat-invoking negative thoughts that enter my mind, but it wasn’t easy.

Everyone tells you breathe and push through it, but that isn’t always 100 percent effective, especially if your mind flutters around with what that other person is thinking.

Even in a nonjudgmental yoga class, thinking about what people are thinking fills my head. I walked over to my friend who saved a spot for me in yoga. She was talking to a guy. I don’t like walking into rooms with lots of people I don’t know, let alone walking through the room to get to the spot 10 steps away. There was this feeling of uneasiness: someone stares, someone looks you up and down… someone does something. Of course, part of it is in my head because everyone else is minding their own business. As I sat down, my friend introduced her friend and I wasn’t even sure what to say. After I mentioned what I do for work, she stated how we worked together. The awkward pause made me want to turn around and/or wish the instructor would begin immediately. In those movies where we can pretend we could do whatever we want, I wish I would literally just get up and run to the hills. In reality, they end up talking to each other as I nod, feeling heat and sweat start to rise.

Looking back at this, I realize nothing really happened that was truly negative. They talked and shared some common topics and that was it. My thoughts swarmed.

Here are three things I noticed about myself after reflection:

1. Social situations can cause someone with social anxiety to feel weird and awkward.
2. I found myself worried on what to say instead of focusing on what the topic was. I was too aware of my awkwardness to be engaging in the conversation.
3. People have evaluations and judgments of others all the time.

So I found my top five ways to help deal with social anxiety and hope you utilize these as well.

1. Utilize progressive muscle relaxation.

This can be great right before you enter that big party, or a place with lots of people. You can do the exercise in your car. The simplest way is to start with one part of your body. I usually start with the hands, clenching and releasing them slowly. Utilize breathing and start from arms to trunk to legs.

2. Mindfulness is powerful.

If you focus on the here and now, you can focus on what you’re communicating to others. This takes some time. It’s not a flip of the switch to be mindful but easy practice can help. One quick way is to quickly scan at least five objects around you. Name their color, think about their size. This helps you narrow your thoughts to the object, not your mind racing. I have found this to help me focus not on my awkwardness but on other things.

3. Lead the topic.

This one may take a little more courage but if you find a topic of interest in a group setting, it helps to think about your interest or passion in the forefront of your mind and nothing else. Then, to help the uneasiness if you start to feel awkward or uncomfortable, turn toward your friend or ask anyone: “What do you think?” Changing a topic that makes sense can help you feel a little more confident. For example, in the instance at yoga, I could have asked more about what the guy did for work to see if there was a commonality among us.

4. Utilize deep breathing during times you start to feel awkward in a group.

I need to practice this more, but smile and nod while you listen and breathe with more intention. This works similarly to mindfulness but now you’re focused on your breath, pausing between breaths.

5. Lastly, find a mantra that suits you.

I have learned, after reading a dozen of those Pinterest lists, that the only one I really found true was “everything is going to be OK.” Yes, we have heard this over and over, but it was the only one that compelled me to move beyond my thoughts. There will be times of challenge, trouble and hardship. Mantras or quotes help you feel something and believe in it, marking a positive pathway.

Eventually, the sun rises and you’ve actually survived the worse. Let’s be honest; there will be days when social anxiety can be really hard and the tools you’ve tried were too difficult to use. In those cases, journaling has helped me to process those emotions in a healthy matter. Self-reflection helps us dissect our minds thoughts and to identify any triggers to help us prepare for the future.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

Originally published: June 29, 2018
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