Some people are able to walk into a room and strike up a conversation with anyone in it. But others are so shy they can hardly say hello. People with an extreme fear of social situations, whether personal or professional, may suffer from social anxiety disorder (SAD). It is defined as the extreme and debilitating fear of being scrutinized or judged by other people in social or performance situations, and it’s surprisingly common: in the US alone, some 15 million people suffer from it.
For these people, just the thought of being around other people can cause upset stomachs, pounding hearts, and sweaty palms.
Every single day in the workplace, we face social situations that can be trying for even for the most well-adjusted among us. But if you’re someone who suffers from social anxiety, the repercussions on your career can be dramatic: you may be passing up on chances for promotions, fading into the background at meetings, avoiding speaking even when you know have something valuable to contribute, and in a general sense, being perceived by others as underperforming.
And that’s a terrible shame, because social anxiety can be managed. Here are several techniques you can use to do just that.
“Go forth and do”
That’s the message from Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. In a recent interview with The Verge, she gave her advice for overcoming social anxiety: “We think we have to feel like going to the gym before going to work out. But if we lace up our shoes and go to the gym, often our mood catches up, and we’re glad we went. With confidence, it’s the same thing. We have to put action before feeling confidence because when we see ourselves doing challenging things, we start to believe we can.”
Shift your attention
Much of social anxiety is caused by focusing our thoughts inwards rather than outwards, allowing our minds to lie to us about imagined negativity. One of the best ways to overcome anxiety is to switch your attention to its external setting as much as possible. Shifting attention away from your internal thoughts lessens the power they have over you. For example, when a colleague talks to you, try to place your focus exclusively on them and what they’re saying without turning your thoughts inward and worrying about what you should say next or what they might be thinking of you.
It’s important to learn the warning signs of an imminent anxiety flare-up in order to help you take action. For some, this might include increased muscle tension, a racing heart, or chaotic thoughts. Having control over your body – especially your lungs – can help immensely. Breathing exercises can help you reduce your anxiety. Slow, deep, steady breaths will lower your heart rate. And as your heart rate slows down, your muscles will relax and the chaos in your thoughts will lessen as well.
The ultimate goal of overcoming social anxiety, both at work and in your personal life, is to develop a more accepting attitude toward anxiety. Learn how to tolerate your anxious feelings rather than trying to control and eliminate them; this will prevent them from spiraling out of control. Acceptance will also help you calm your mind by preparing you to take more control of negative thoughts. When you practice acceptance, you’ll begin to notice a change in your inner voice from “I can’t” to “It’s OK, I can”. For example, “It’s OK, I can feel anxious but still perform well at my job.”
Be brave for one minute
Most of social anxiety is anticipatory in nature. If you have social anxiety, you may imagine worst-case scenarios, be convinced that you can’t cope, or see imminent catastrophes everywhere. But once you gather your courage and plunge into a social situation, even though it’s true you’ll definitely feel anxious at first, your anxiety will naturally level out and begin to dissipate. But if you avoid anxiety completely, you’ll never discover that truth. Commit to being brave for one minute and see for yourself.