Overcoming Social Anxiety

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If you’re a person who feels overly anxious in social situations, you may be breathing a sigh of relief that the holidays are behind you. Social engagements are plentiful during the month of December, and people who experience symptoms of social phobia may consider the holidays an especially challenging time period. Here’s the good news: It’s January. Here’s the even better news: You can learn to be comfortable in social situations. Let’s take a closer look.

First, it’s important to understand that social anxiety, or social phobia, is about more than just being a little shy. People with social phobia are intensely afraid of social situations. In fact, they may be so fearful of being watched or judged by others that they do everything possible to avoid situations where this might occur. They might stay away from people, get physically sick before a party, and blush, sweat or tremble when they’re forced to speak in front of others.

No one likes to be embarrassed or judged in public. And no one wants to feel like they fall short or don’t measure up. But people with social anxiety may worry about these outcomes to the extent that their life is disrupted and they can’t perform daily duties. If this sounds familiar, here are a few things that might help:

  • Focus on something besides yourself. When you’re in a social situation that makes you nervous, it’s likely that all your thoughts will be about your perceived predicament. That’s because you’re trying to manage or control the situation so people won’t notice how anxious you are. Unfortunately, that only makes things worse. Instead, think about what’s going on around you and do your best to engage with others. By switching your attention to something or someone other than yourself, you’ll naturally relieve some of the tension and fear.
  • Breathe slowly. When the going gets tough, you tend to breathe more rapidly, which can disrupt your body’s oxygen supply. The result? You might feel dizzy. Your muscles could tighten up. And your heart will probably start to pound. To alleviate these unwanted symptoms, focus on a breathing pattern in which you inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
  • Turn the negative into a positive. When you’re worried about a social situation, it can be helpful to recognize the negative thoughts behind your fear. For instance, if you’re anxious about an upcoming client meeting, you may be afraid that the client won’t like your work or that you won’t be able to answer important questions. Take a moment to think long and hard about the reality behind those negative thoughts. Remember that the chances of actually messing up during the meeting are slim. It’s more likely that you will do fine.
  • Take care of your physical self. You’ve heard it before, but that’s only because it’s true. Staying active and eating right goes a long way toward relieving anxiety. Adopt a regular exercise program and take the time to eat healthy foods. Above all, avoid drinking alcohol as an attempt to alleviate your anxiety. And if you smoke, now is probably a good time to quit. The nicotine in cigarettes can actually increase your anxiety.

If these strategies don’t help, it may be time to contact a mental health professional who can offer additional suggestions and techniques. Some cases may require treatment with medication or cognitive behavioral therapy.

David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.