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How to Deal with Anxiety in Social Situations

Some anxiety is common to personalities that feel uncomfortable in social situations involving strangers or large groups. Introverts often experience this discomfort without knowing how to deal with anxiety in a crowd of people. However, there is another kind of anxiety sometimes associated with social contexts that is more pronounced and can be emotionally crippling for its sufferers. It is called social phobic disorder and is a mental health issue associated with a broader spectrum of anxiety disorders. The social phobic may experience panic attacks due to severe anxiety and will go to any lengths to avoid large gatherings of people and crowded public places.

Most individuals who suffer with unmanageable levels of social anxiety report that they frequently long to find a way to manage their symptoms in order to cope at family gatherings, parties, and even work-related functions. For some, medication is needed to help control extremely high levels of anxiety so that these individual can continue to function. For others, however, cognitive-behavioral strategies are the key to managing fears associated with social situations. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on exposing and changing distorted patterns of thought that produce socially related anxiety as well as replacing unhealthy behaviors with adaptive ones.

Whether you have a personality type that simply shies away from social situations due to feelings of awkwardness or suffer with social phobic disorder, these eight self-help tips are proven strategies for helping those who deal with social anxiety.

Cognitive tips for taking control of your thought life

1. Recommend yourself.

Make a list of reasons why another person might like you. If, for example, you are well read, tell yourself that there will be people in the room who share your love of books. If you consider yourself a good listener, add this to your list. When your list is complete, make a small set of flashcards that you can carry with you. Just before entering a social situation that you are feeling anxious about, pull out your cards and read each one aloud. When finished, tell yourself that you are taking these attributes with you into the room to share with others if the opportunity presents itself.

2. Identify negative messages

Learn to identify any negative “mental tapes” that seem to always replay in your head when faced with a social situation. If that “parental voice” tries to tell you, “you won’t ever amount to anything,” look into the mirror several times a day and tell yourself, “I am a good person and somebody out there needs me for a friend.” Once you have identified and written down those messages that just won’t go away, work on new statements to refute each one and incorporate them into a daily self-talk routine.

3. Think small

Imagine yourself entering a small room with only two or three people. Now tell yourself that a bigger room is just made up of many smaller ones, each with just two or three people. As you prepare to walk into a large gathering, picture yourself inside that small room and, consciously, group people into smaller clusters. This will help you remember that there’s no need to be overwhelmed by a whole room full of people, because you can’t possibly talk to more than just a couple at a time anyway.

4. Keep your options open

Retrain your thinking in situations that are less than desirable by reminding yourself that you do have a choice to avoid the situation altogether. It might not be the best decision and it certainly won’t help you conquer your anxiety, but it is an option. You’re here because you choose to be. You have already chosen to work on learning how to deal with your anxiety in social situations. Telling yourself that you have choices gives you more control and with control, comes confidence.

Behavioral tips for turning anxiety ridden behavior into positive action

1. Learn your lines

Write out 3-5 sentences that you might use to introduce yourself into a conversation. Memorize them so that you can access any one of them that seems appropriate. You will never have to wonder what to say to open a conversation. Here are some examples:

a. “I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion about________. Mind if I join you?”

b. “Hey! How are you? I’m __________ (Give your name and extend your hand.)

c. “I’m not much of a party animal so small talk isn’t exactly my strong suit. How about you?”

d. “I just got here. Have I missed anything spectacular?”

e. “Are you here just for fun, or hoping to network?”

2. Say it with body language

Imagine that you are wearing an invisible sign around your neck as you enter a crowded room. What would the sign say about how you are feeling? Chances are, your body language is that sign. So, straighten your shoulders, throw your head slightly back, put a pleasant smile on your face, and walk confidently into the room wearing a new imaginary sign that says, “I’m a friendly person. Come on over and get to know me.” Don’t drop your eyes just because they make contact with another person. Walk on over and use one of those conversation starters you’ve memorized.

3. Cultivate the art of good listening

Remember that people are attracted to those who actively listen. Tune in, maintain intermittent eye contact and really pay attention. When it seems appropriate to respond, surprise your fellow conversationalist by reflecting back what you’ve just heard. He’ll be flattered by the attention and you might just make a new friend.

4. Face up to your fear

Whatever else you do, don’t find a corner behind the potted plant and go into hiding. If you do, you will be ignored but that will only increase your discomfort. Instead, grab a drink or a small plate of finger food and move around until the opportunity presents itself to join or start a conversation.

You may not like the well-worn phrase, “fake it till you make it,” but if you really make an effort to face your anxiety, you can make it. You may want to see a mental health professional for CBT in order to explore even more techniques to help you manage your anxiety. By changing the way you think cognitively about yourself in social situations and practicing some good behavioral techniques you just may find that, somewhere along the line, you stop just going through the motions and start genuinely overcoming your social anxiety.