If you have social anxiety, you need to stop avoiding social situations and structure your behaviour for success by practicing the strategies below:
1. Start actively seeking social situation. If you are very anxious, begin with having conversations with telemarketers or a salesperson in a shop. This will help you habituate to social interactions. Then, start gradually exposing yourself to social interactions; first one-on-one, and slowly building the courage to interact with groups of people. Other small steps to overcome avoidance may include:
– Make it a goal to smile and say hello at every opportunity (at a shop, in a lift, at work and to your neighbours).
– Identify the eye colour of every person you talk to throughout the day to get used to establishing eye contact.
– Try to learn at least one new person’s name whenever possible (at work, at a yoga class or at an event).
2. Examine the situation objectively. Remember, your feelings and thoughts are not facts, and the “how I feel is how I look” approach is incorrect. The information from your internal sensations is biased. How we feel inside is not an accurate reflection of how we come across to others.
3. In a social situation, keep shifting your focus to what’s going on around you instead of focusing on your internal sensations and thoughts. Shifting attention away from the self and concentrating on others instead facilitates social interaction and helps you stay engaged. Make a conscious effort to look at the other person’s face, establish eye contact and concentrate on the content of the conversation.
4. Drop any “safety behaviours” you may be using – such as avoiding eye contact, staring at your phone, carrying a bottle of water, pretending to be disinterested, dressing a certain way, etc. These behaviours may seem helpful but in reality they just make anxiety stronger in the long run.
5. Ban the “postmortem” analysis and overthinking by not engaging with the thoughts and images of recent social interactions. You may start by allocating a certain time frame, say, 15 minutes per day, to “analyse” past social interactions. When you start thinking about them at other times, gently remind yourself that if you still need to, you will allow yourself to ruminate about them during the allocated time.
6. Do not try to adhere to any specific social rules, as this will just make you more focused on yourself rather than the situation. The best social skill is to attend to the situation and to be flexible in your response.