“I just don’t want to go.”
“Ugh, I’d rather stay home.”
“Just thinking about going to that party is giving me so much anxiety.”
“Maybe I’ll go for a little while and hide in the corner.”
Though often confused and conflated with being shy or an introvert, social anxiety is a distinct disorder that can have a serious negative impact on a person’s life. Here is how the National Institute for Mental Health defines social anxiety: “Social anxiety disorder (formerly social phobia) is characterized by a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.”
Social anxiety is also characterized by “a constant feeling of apprehension regarding social situations” that leads many people to practice avoidance behaviors, according to Bethany Bray, a writer for Counseling Today. Social anxiety manifests differently for each person who is impacted by it, so there are a variety of ways to cope. Though many people wait decades before seeking help for social anxiety, it is indeed treatable and manageable.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Social Anxiety
There are many ways to manage social anxiety. Some are healthy coping mechanisms that allow you to make it through the challenging times, while others are destructive and can wreak havoc. Many people manage social anxiety, whether consciously or not, by drinking alcohol, using drugs, or overeating. According to Anxiety Canada, an organization dedicated to promoting awareness of anxiety disorders and supporting access to resources and treatment, some specific healthy ways to manage social anxiety include the following:
- Observe your social anxiety: It is easier to manage your anxiety when you have a greater awareness of how it manifests itself. Everyone experiences social anxiety and fears differently. Take a few weeks to keep a log of which situations cause you anxiety and what you experience in your body during those scenarios.
- Learn to relax: Working with techniques such as breathing calmly and relaxing your muscles can help you ride out tough emotions in a social situation.
- Question your thoughts: Notice the thoughts that arise when you feel anxious in a social situation. What are you telling yourself? Ask yourself if your thoughts are true and helpful, and if they are not, try to identify more accurate and helpful thoughts.
- Face your fears: Once you are more aware of what situations cause you anxiety, how anxiety feels in your body, and how to relax and question your thoughts (particularly negative beliefs), it’s time to practice being in various social settings. The more you practice, the more confidence you will gain, and the less distress you may experience in the long run.
Here are six more healthy ways to manage social anxiety. These include saying no out of the necessity for self-care, setting clear boundaries with others and yourself, phoning a friend, preparing yourself ahead of time, opening your mind to the possibility that this time could be different, and trying to clearly recall how your social interaction went last time. Let’s look at each of these techniques in detail.
1. Just Say No
Some days it is absolutely necessary to hunker down, stay home, and just say no to attending yet another gathering. Give yourself permission to be alone or with a close friend. It might not be easy to say no. Maybe you really wish you wanted to go. Maybe you know that your host will miss you or will be disappointed that you couldn’t make it.
Disappointing your friends or your family or even yourself can be distressing. And necessary. Though your anxiety may tell you otherwise, it is indeed highly unlikely that you will be disowned or forgotten if you choose to skip this one dinner party or theater performance or family reunion. Sometimes (always) it is necessary and absolutely a-okay to choose to take care of yourself. Even if choosing to decline an invitation or change your plans at the last minute means letting someone else down, self-care takes precedent. Though no explanation or excuse is really needed, if you do choose to say no, it is kind to offer a brief explanation and a thank-you for the invitation. Though it may be tempting to lie about why you aren’t coming, it’s best to simply thank the host for the invitation without going into elaborate detail about why you can’t make it. You could even try being completely honest about what’s going on for you. Depending on the people and the circumstances, consider suggesting another opportunity to see each other. Here are some simple ways to say no:
- “Thank you so much for the invitation. I won’t be able to make it this time. I hope you have a wonderful event and I look forward to the next time we see each other!”
- “I’m so honored to be included in this invitation. It looks like I won’t be able to be there. I will miss seeing you. Let’s get together soon!”
- “My apologies, but it turns out that I won’t be able to attend after all. I know I said I would be there and I’m so sorry to disappoint you.”
- “I appreciate your inviting me. It means the world to me! I’m focusing on self-care right now and I think it is better for me to stay home. I hope you understand.”
2. Prepare Yourself Ahead of Time
If you do choose to venture out, decide on an exit plan before you go. For example, think about the following:
- Decide how long you will stay (30 minutes is perfectly acceptable) and what time you will head out.
- Decide on what you will say about leaving early in case anyone asks. For example, you could plan to say, “Ah, I gotta let the dog out!” or “You know, Sam really needs me at home tonight.” Saying, “Oh, I just need to get going.” is absolutely enough information.
Whether your plan includes thanking your host or slipping out sight unseen, remember that you owe no one an explanation. You are allowed to come and go anywhere as you please. That said, if you are attending the gathering with someone, and their ability to stay at the event or leave is hindered by your disappearing, then you do indeed need to let them know.
If you choose to say goodbye to your host, start with the positive and thank your host for having you, and then say that you will catch up with them soon. If you choose to slip out, send a quick text or email to your host later, letting them know that you are okay and that you appreciated the invitation.
3. Phone a Friend
Have your best friend, sponsor, or mentor on speed dial and at the ready for texting. Give your friend a heads-up that you will be in a potentially sticky situation and ask if they would consider being available for you.
For example, let your go-to person know a few days ahead of time that you are headed to the family cabin for the weekend with your cousins and their kids and that you almost always get triggered about being the only one without children; when you feel provoked, take yourself for a little walk to clear your head and text your pal. This person can then remind you that you are a badass living an amazing life, you are good at your job, you have so many people who love you, and your family doesn’t define you—and, by the way, your hair looks incredible today!
Whether you are heading to a wedding where you know you will see your partner’s ex, spending the holidays with family, or heading out on a double date, having someone who loves you be with you in spirit can make all the difference. Remember, though, that you may still need to do some deep breathing or take some time out by yourself. Your “phone a friend” person can do their best, but it’s not their responsibility to make you feel 100 percent again. In other words, don’t get mad at them if they can’t. Also, consider offering to “be with” them the next time they need to phone a friend as well.
4. Set Clear Boundaries
Give yourself permission to go or not go and to be okay with either choice. And create clear boundaries with yourself and with others about what you are willing to try and what is just too great a stretch right now. Maybe you are all right with attending a wedding as a guest but if you are asked to speak in front of the whole group, then it’s a no-go. Maybe you are fine with a meal or day trip with your partner’s family, but an entire weekend is simply too intense. Boundaries are healthy and help you maintain stability and a sense of safety.
5. Open Your Mind
Consider the seemingly impossible possibility that you may actually have a good time in a social setting. Just because you got freaked out last time doesn’t guarantee that you will feel the same way again this time. Even if you have created an exit plan and set clear boundaries, allow yourself some mind space and leeway in case you actually are enjoying yourself. You may surprise yourself and want to stay longer than you planned to after all. You may be enthralled with that handsome stranger or find yourself talking shop with someone interesting. If you allow even the possibility that you may enjoy this social situation, you energetically make space for that to become reality.
6. Recall the Last Time
Consider how you felt the last time you went to a similar event. Sometimes you may experience anticipatory anxiety that is not based on reality. Maybe each time you attend book club you have a lovely, engaging time and actually feel supported and loved by your friends. And yet each month when book club week rolls around you feel struck by panic about having to attend. To counter this anticipatory anxiety, try recalling, through meditation or journaling, how you actually felt last time. Let the truth of the memory of your last outing inspire you for this time around. If it really was horrendous, skip it this time. If it wasn’t actually so bad, challenge yourself to give it another go.
Whether you have been officially diagnosed with social anxiety disorder or are noticing that you sometimes feel slightly shaky in social settings, remember that there are many ways to help manage social anxiety. It may take lots of trial and error to manage what seems to come so easily to some people, so be patient and compassionate with yourself. Get out when you can and give yourself guiltless permission to be on your own when that is what you need.
*Editor's Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
Learn simple yet effective techniques to calm yourself in even the most hectic situations with Breathwork, our self-paced online course. Learn More.