This Is the Best Trick I've Used to Combat My Social Anxiety

Denisa Feathers

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I suffer from social anxiety. Quite a lot.

Before socializing, I experience the common sweating, digestive issues, feeling like I’m about to vomit, wanting to dig a hole beneath me and hide in it instead of interacting with people, you know the gist. I have a weird fixation on the fear of awkward silence.

And I’ve found a way to combat this. Or at least make it weaker as time goes on.

I’m no expert, and everything I talk about regarding anxiety comes from my personal experience, so if the tip I share in this article doesn’t help you, that’s okay — there’s lots of advice online. Everyone is different and has their own ways of combatting their demons.

Anxiety is my enemy

As I look back on my life, it’s quite strange to think about the fact that most of it has been spent in this weird bubble of anxiety and nervousness. I practised every social interaction beforehand, and I prepared five topics to talk about with my dates and friends in the catastrophic scenario where awkward silence would take place.

When I joined a theatre club, I felt relieved after the class ended every Thursday, only to start anxiously obsessing over the next Thursday class three days later. Oh no, just four days to go and I’ll have to go there again! I basically spent six months of that year on the toilet.

But I persevered. I played in many plays, had a leading role, made life-long friends, and six years later, I came out of the experience stronger.

I didn’t give up. I refused to let anxiety overpower me. It wasn’t going to take this incredible part of my life away from me. This turned out to be the key to weakening my social anxiety.

Recently I visited my partner’s parents for the first time, an event that was very stressful because 1) I hadn’t seen people for 3 months during quarantine 2) I wanted to make a good impression, and 3) it involved lots of social interaction.

I was nervous about it. But not as much as I had expected. As I was waiting for them to pick us up, I felt surprised at how little I was actually anxious. It was empowering. After years and years of struggling, after millions of little steps towards improving my condition, I finally reached a place of at least some peace.

I didn’t prepare any topics to talk about. And it was just fine without them.

Anxiety is my friend

Robin Sharma says:

“The beautiful thing about fear is, when you run to it, it runs away.”

I’ve found the same applies to anxiety. After all, anxiety is tightly connected to fear. As Ella Pearson explains in this article, anxiety wants to protect us from danger.

It’s a mechanism that wants you not to do what you strive to do, simply because of all the dangers you might encounter — the danger of failure, of being ridiculed, of entering unnecessary conflicts, of finding yourself in an awkward situation.

However, putting yourself through these precise situations is the key to progress. Often, practice is simply the only way to get better at things, from playing a musical instrument to handling your anxiety.

I have realized that the more I do the things I’m scared of, the less scared I become. The more I put myself through anxiety-inducing situations, the less anxious future situations make me feel. On the other hand, the more I avoid these circumstances and hide in my comfort zone, the harder it is to actually step out again.

One time, I spent the whole month shut at home, worrying about getting a part-time job I desperately needed to pay rent, not socializing with anyone because I refused to find new friends (I said I was not good at finding them, which might be partly true, but if you just download Bumble BFF and go for a coffee with someone, I bet it’s better than staring at your ceiling for a month). When I got the job and went to work after such a long time spent in my little anxious bubble, my anxiety was very severe. It spiked so much over those four weeks.

Other times, when I regularly stepped out of my comfort zone, I got very adventurous, more social and less nervous. I flew to Indonesia to volunteer in the jungle with people I had never met. I moved to another country for the summer with an acquaintance I didn’t know that much — we grew very close and the experience was wonderful.

I went on a date and cried because of how anxious I felt, only to find myself in an amazing relationship with this person a few weeks later. I was constantly shaking as I was sitting in that café, trying to listen to him instead of focusing on the nervousness in my stomach, and I had no idea that doing this uncomfortable thing would change my life for the better. But it did.

I make myself enter situations that cause me severe anxiety instead of avoiding them because that’s how I learn to accept my anxiety. I tell her:

“You see? It’s not nearly as bad as we imagined. This isn’t dangerous. Don’t worry.”

And she calms down as I keep practising, I keep socializing, I keep getting used to the fact that awkward silence isn’t the worst thing in the world. Because it’s really not.

It’s my own version of doing exposure therapy. I expose myself to the things I’m most anxious about and I convince my body that it’s safe. I show my mind it can be at ease. And it works. Exposure therapy can actually be very effective for treating anxiety disorders — 60–90% of people have either no symptoms or only mild symptoms after undergoing this process with the help of a professional.

Your therapist might do an imaginal exposure with you, which means they guide you through the process as you try to imagine your anxiety-provoking triggers as vividly as possible. In other cases, they can opt for in vivo exposure — you face your fears in real life.

I like to compare it to my much less problematic fear of spiders. When I see a spider on my ceiling, I have two options: 1) call him Bert, say hi to him every morning, and convince myself that Bert is protecting my bathroom or 2) start screaming and have the thing taken away.

In my brain, the latter only strengthens the notion that spiders are scary and disgusting. The first case can actually help me see spiders for what they are — a neutral form of an insect that won’t hurt me in any way.

My anxious friend, keep going

Having social anxiety is awful. I hate it. I hate how it makes me feel, I hate how it can get in the way of living a good life, I hate the complications and fears it brings.

But like with almost anything in life, once you learn to accept it and you move past it, it gets better. Co-operate with your anxiety. Don’t let it win. Don’t let it get in the way of your dreams.

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self…” — Søren Kierkegaard

It’s a feeling you get when you live your life — it should not prevent you from living that life the way you want. Don’t run away from it. Run towards it. Give it a hug. Show your anxiety that there’s no reason for her to be so scared. Experience life outside of your comfort zone and grow as a human being. It will get better in time. You’re stronger than your anxiety.

War consists of dozens of individual battles. This war is about dealing with your anxiety and putting yourself through uncomfortable painful situations to grow stronger, become more confident in who you are, and watch your anxiety weaken as you tell yourself:

“I can do this.”

The small battles are what matters in the long run. Making that phone call. Going to that one class. Talking to one person a day. Going for a coffee with someone. Chatting with your Uber driver. Every won battle is a victory.

Win the next one.

Photo Credit: Caleb George on Unsplash

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I'm a student of Languages & Comparative Literature who writes about relationships, self-improvement, lifestyle, books, and more.

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