You have 30 minutes to be at an event.
Your heart is pounding heavily against your chest. Palms sweaty. Stomach tight. Hands trembling. You can’t think clearly and wish you didn’t have to go, but this time it’s different. You promised your friend you’d be at the party and you’ve given too many excuses in the past.
What do you do in such a situation?
Social anxiety is not something you can just get over. And as much as we would like it to be so, it’s not “just in our head”.
But how do we navigate a situation where the stakes are high and we need to take action in the moment?
All through my years of battling social anxiety, only four techniques have stood out to me for their immediate effect on my anxiety. These are quick fixes, but can be used over time to overcome social anxiety.
I encourage you to try them yourself and observe their impact on your anxiety.
Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario
At first, I did this technique wrong. I would imagine something as extreme as “dying” as my worst-case scenario instead of visualising something remotely related to the event. To me, there was nothing worse than dying and that should have obliterated any other fear I had about the event.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. While dying can be considered the worst thing to happen in any situation, it has no relevance to the actual fear of being judged or scrutinised in public.
Realising this, I started to visualise the worst-case scenario in terms of what I feared could happen in an upsetting event. For instance, before attending an interview, I would imagine the interviewers speaking harshly to me and telling me they don’t like me straight to my face. This is not only more realistic but is also related to the anxiety-inducing event — in this case, the interview.
However, thinking of death or the apocalypse as your worst case scenario can be helpful when you’re seeing things from a general viewpoint. For instance, you could tell yourself “well this wouldn’t be the end of the world” if you’re scared you’d get shot down after approaching a stranger.
It’s important to know when and how to apply both techniques to see results.
Challenge Your Negative Thoughts
You can handle social anxiety in the moment by identifying and challenging the thoughts that are causing you to be anxious.
For it to be effective, write down the negative thoughts on paper. Don’t try to challenge the negative thoughts in your head because this would only be a futile battle.
You need to be able to see the thoughts to recognise them for what they are. Once you’ve written the thoughts down, question their validity and find more rational thoughts to replace them.
Instead of: “I’d look so awkward and out of place at the party”, try “people always compliment me for my fashion sense; I’m sure people at the party would be more focused on that”.
Instead of: “My date will think I’m awkward and lose interest”, try “I will try to loosen up and focus on getting to know her better; she may also be nervous for all I know”.
Focus on What Really Matters
Distract yourself by redirecting your focus to things outside your negative thoughts. Play a game in your head. Identify all the people wearing red. Focus on your breathing. The goal is to stop being self-conscious and you need to redirect your focus outside yourself to achieve this.
Focus on What You Can Control
Social anxiety stems from the fear of not being able to control external events. We fear what other people think about us and think we’re not in control because we can’t change their perceptions of us.
We can learn to control our own reactions irrespective of how others treat us. This comes through practice and constantly taking steps to overcome your anxiety — challenging negative thoughts, meditation, exposure, etc.
However, one thing we can do in the moment is to accept that there will be bad days. No matter how much effort you put into improving, there will be days when you fail. But that’s okay.
Like with every other thing in life, failure is just part of the process. The more you make mistakes and learn from them, the more confident you become.
What other steps have you taken to get over social anxiety in the moment? I’d love to hear from you.