Tip #142: Become the social butterfly you were born not to be.
The Why: Anxiety can already make you feel alone and isolated, but when social anxiety kicks in and you feel you can’t even go to a cafe with a friend without reaching for a paper bag to hyperventilate in, it can make your self-esteem and feelings of loneliness even worse.
When you have anxiety, friends can be a valuable support system unlike no other. They can be the people you turn to when you’re struggling, the people to make you laugh through the panic attack, and the people who are going through the exact same thing so understand you.
I just want you to know that social anxiety can and will be overcome, I’m living proof of this. I used to not be able to even introduce myself to a stranger without my hair standing on end (giving me a reputation as a bit of an ice queen). In truth, I think people are great, wonderful and fundamentally misunderstood beings, it was just hard to talk to them.
Tip one – Have a buddy
Sometimes going to a house party or even dinner with friends can give you as much anxiety as someone asking you to talk in front of 10,000 people in a pakced arena.
Picking a buddy at the begining of the night whom you can talk to openly about your anxiety can be an amazingly important crutch as you go through the evening. Knowing there’s someone there who you can talk to or find if you’re feeling anxious who will listen and understand can provide a safety blanket and calm you down.
When my anxiety was particularly bad a few years ago, a very lovely friend of mine used to say ‘when you feel bad we can leave, I’ll come with you’. Although I felt bad about potentially cutting their evening short, just knowing that I had an escape if things got particularly bad gave me comfort, and meant that I felt okay and safe whilst out and about.
Tip two – Stick with it
Sometimes even now when I’m out with friends or going for coffee, I can begin to have a panic attack. But, rather than leaving, or not going, I tell myself I’m going to stick around and stay there no matter what. I carry on talking as normal, and keep telling myself that I’m going to be okay. Eventually, my anxiety will calm back down and I can enjoy the rest of my time with my friends undisturbed.
Promising myself to stick with plans, or stay out, means that my anxiety knows it can’t win, and that I know that even if I have a mild panic attack when sitting there, I’m going to be okay and will calm back down. This is a super important piece of physcology, and a powerful message to send to your brain. Telling it to f**k off so you can enjoy yourself means that the next time you go out and you begin feeling that way, you’ll have previous times when you knew it was okay to refer to, giving you a good defence against anxiety. It can’t hurt you.
Imagine this conversation with your brain:
Brain: I’m starting to feel anxious, I can’t breathe.
You: We’ve felt this way before, and been fine, I’ll calm down soon.
Brain: Hmm…that’s very true. I’ll be okay. Nothing to worry about then.
Sticking it out is hard at first. Really, really hard. You may feel awful, nasty, horrible and weird. But it’s worth it. It’s so, so worth it. Don’t allow anxiety to rule your life, tell it to jog on.
Tip Three – Change Your Narrative
If you think you’re a thing, you’re a thing. It’s a basic rule of psychology. It may sound very strange, but it’s true.
If you think you’re ugly, you’ll view yourself through the lens of thinking of yourself as ugly, so your world-view of yourself will be skewed.
Repeating negative messages literally rewires your brain, and completely alters your perception of yourself, making it hard to see yourself as you truly appear to everyone else. This ‘fake news narrative’ can take over, and cause serious mental harm.
For instance, say you believe yourself to be an awkward person. This means that everytime you talk to a new person, you’ll be thinking to yourself “I’m so awkward, this will go badly”, meaning that you’ll begin to panic and freak out, which probably will make you act awkwardly, reinforcing the view that you are awkward and making things far, far worse. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The way to break this cycle is to change your narrative about yourself. Stop saying “I’m an awkward person” or “I can’t talk to people” and start finding instances in your life that disprove those things. This means that if a thought like that pops into your mind, you can say “that’s not true, I remember when I did x”.
Start making a conscious effort to view yourself differently; this process begins say different things about yourself in your mind. Switch from negative to positive statements about yourself.
This will create a new positive feedback loop. Instead of this:
Thinks negatively -> acts negatively -> people react negatively -> reinforces negative self-image.
You’ll get this:
Thinks positively -> acts positively -> people react positively -> reinforces positive self-image.
A friend of mine had this further advice on how to change your narrative: “Over time I’ve started to realize that I *do* have the ability handle social situations properly, but the effort it takes can drain me. So instead of telling myself, “I don’t know how to socialize normally,” I’ve started saying, “I can socialize just fine. But I only have so much energy to do so, and sometimes I just don’t feel like it.” Or instead of “I’m so awkward when I talk to people,” I change it to: “I’m weird and this is the way I want to be. I care about how I present myself, and it’s okay to be nervous about it.” My adjusted thoughts feel like nice, self-empowering thing to say to myself, whilst also being realistic.”
Tip four: Make A Joke Out Of It
There is no cure for anxiety like laughter. Trust me on this one. Making a joke out of your social anxiety takes the poison out of it, and breaks the barrier between you and other people.
I once introduced myself as ‘Susan’. My name is not Susan. Instead of freaking out about it, I said “Sorry, my name’s actually x, I get nervous sometimes”. We all laughed, the ice was broken, and the worst thing that could have happened had already happened, meaning the conversation could only get better from there (hopefully).
Laughter is also the shortest distance between two people, if you can poke fun at yourself, it makes people warm up to you quicker, as it shows you don’t take yourself too seriously. It also means that people won’t feel awkward around you feeling anxious, it’ll just be another part of the conversation.
Tip five: Build Up To It
It is perfectly acceptable to admit that overcoming social anxiety, or anxiety in general, is a process. It’s okay for things to take time, for things to get worse before they get better, and for things to relapse occasionally.
With this in mind, this is why it’s okay to take smaller steps and build up to larger events like house parties and conferences.
Even if its setting yourself a goal of putting your hand up in class, speaking to someone you don’t know, or going for a coffee with one friend, getting yourself out of the house and into the social world is vital. It’s okay to start small and build your confidence.
The worst thing to do with social anxiety, or anxiety in general, is shut yourself off and avoid the scary thing. This tells your brain that there is a reason to be afraid, and so increases your anxiety and gives it a rationale.
Instead, tell your brain that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and demonstrate this by making an effort. It may be hard and horrible at first, but it will get easier. Everytime, I promise, it will get easier.
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