15 strategies to ease social Anxiety

Shyness and its more extreme form, social anxiety, can be crippling, but there are some simple but effective tips that can help with both

Simple and effective steps can help overcome shyness. Photo: Getty Images.

If you have a shy child, don't throw them into a big group or club

thumbnail: Simple and effective steps can help overcome shyness. Photo: Getty Images.
thumbnail: If you have a shy child, don't throw them into a big group or club
Áilín Quinlan

Shyness is a common personality trait - a shy person doesn't want to be at the centre of attention, explains Gary Donohoe, professor of psychology at NUI Galway. Social anxiety, which is also quite common, can take the form of an intense fear, anxiety or discomfort in social situations, which can become debilitating.

"Social anxiety is an extreme form of shyness, which can lead to problems such as isolation, loneliness and paranoia," says psychologist Patricia Murray.

1 How's your breathing?

Be aware of your breathing. Is it a little fast or shallow? Is your heart rate going up?

Consciously start to reduce the pace at which you are breathing with some slow breaths, Prof Donohoe suggests."This isn't about taking deep breaths. Imagine your breath is like letting the air out of a balloon. Focus on the breath out of your body. Controlling the breath as it leaves your body is much easier than trying to control the breath in."

Slowing your breathing down means that you are slowing your heart rate and, thereby, giving your body the message to relax.

2 Adjust your posture

Don't hunch over with your arms folded trying to make yourself small, says Donohoe. Instead, assume a posture of confidence - stand straight and tall, because this can actually help to increase your sense of confidence, he reveals. "It's about faking it 'til you're making it," he explains.

Rather than folding your arms in the classic defensive posture, Donohoe suggests holding a glass or putting your hands in your pockets.

A 'threatened' stance can put people off approaching you, turning your anxiety about the event into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And remember to smile: "Smiling makes you look approachable and is far more effective than looking tense, because that would discourage people from engaging with you - smiling gives people signal that you are happy to engage," he adds.

Become aware of personal behaviours that can get in the way of a natural conversation, suggests Dr Olivia Gordon, senior clinical psychologist at St John of God's Hospital. "Go with the flow," she says. "Don't hide your face with your hair, for example, or rehearse what you're going to say to people."

3 Am I the only one?

Remind yourself that you're not the only one in the room who feels uncomfortable.

"Many people feel like this in social situations, and reminding ourselves of that fact can be valuable," says Donohoe.

Understand that, even though they may not show it and you may not be aware of it because you assume it's just you, lots of people feel uncomfortable in particular social situations.

Try not to see yourself as the exception to a rule that 'everyone' is automatically comfortable in all social situations, he advises. "Reminding ourselves of this can be valuable. It makes you feel less isolated - it's called normalising the problem."

4 Try some Bio-Feedback

Ask yourself why you're afraid of social interaction - and start to tackle the problem with a little bit of Exposure Therapy, suggests psychologist Patricia Murray: "Understanding where something comes from is half the battle of getting over it," she explains.

"It could be because you blushed a lot as a teenager and got teased about it, and ended up a bit anti-social because of this."

Now, put yourself into a situation that is a little uncomfortable for you, and check if you respond with excessive blushing - usually you won't, she says. This is called 'bio-feedback'.

5 Get to know your triggers

Identify particular situations that trigger your shyness or social anxiety. It may be job interviews, giving presentations or attending parties where there will be some conversation with people you don't know.

"Ask yourself what it is specifically that you are nervous about. Is it that you might say something foolish or worry that you aren't as clever or as interesting as other people?

"Being able to identify what it is that makes you anxious can be helpful because it helps you name your fear. Once you can name it, it becomes more understandable and more manageable."

6 Examine your shyness thinking patterns

"See what goes through your mind when you're feeling shy and whether it's about being anxious that other people may be judging you," she advises. "Look at your thoughts.

"Examine what goes through your mind and what you worry will happen," she suggests.

Are you afraid of what people will think of you, or that you will say something embarrassing, or that people will think you're odd?

Do you fear that people are scrutinising you and evaluating you or that they are noticing your signs of anxiety? Question these thoughts in a pragmatic way, she suggests. Ask yourself whether it is actually realistic to assume that everyone will be looking at you. Ask yourself: are these fears or are they facts?

7 Other people are never as critical of you as you are of yourself

"When people are in a social situation, they're often afraid that they'll say or do the wrong thing and end up looking inept or socially gauche," says Donohoe. "One really important thing to remember to do when you're socially anxious is to remind yourself that other people won't be as critical of you as you are of yourself.

"You're your own biggest critic so give yourself a break and realise other people are not there to judge you. If you feel self-conscious and suspect that people are looking at and evaluating you, remember that they're probably not doing this because they're usually more focused on themselves rather than on you!"

Remind yourself of this with the following aphorism: "In your teens, you're sure everyone is looking at you. In your 20s, you convince yourself that you don't care. And in your 30s you realise that nobody was really looking at you - or thinking about you - anyway!"

8 Distract yourself

Donohoe suggests taking your mind off your anxiety by simply watching something that makes you laugh.

Try an episode of Friends or Modern Family, before attending the kind of social event that makes you nervous, he suggests.

"Do something that's the opposite of sitting around worrying about it," he counsels. "It's a good idea to bring along bottle of water and take a few sips when you start getting nervous."

Even well-known celebrities will have a glass or bottle of water nearby when they do television interviews, she points out. "It re-focuses the mind off your anxiety."

Taking some simple steps beforehand can help you avoid increasing your sense of physical anxiety. If it's a presentation or a job interview, she says, be well-prepared and very punctual.

Don't drink too much coffee beforehand. Avoid alcohol. Take deep slow breaths to calm yourself.

9 Direct your focus outwards - not inwards

If you don't know what to say to somebody in a social situation, says Prof Donohoe, ask the person about themselves. "It's a really good thing to focus on the other person and to try to find out about him or her - what they do, what their interests are.

"Shift your attention from looking inwards to looking outwards. This means that you are giving out the message that you do want to engage with other people, and that you are interested in what they think.

"Sometimes people who are socially shy come across as aloof or being reluctant to engage with others. This is because they are self-preoccupied.

If you ask people about themselves, it can takes the pressure to perform off you and allows others to do the talking for you - this allows you to relax.

10 Face Your Fears

Identify the particular situations you generally like to avoid, says Gordon.

You may, for example, dislike making casual eye contact or making small talk with people you don't know.

Once you have identified something real, start to build your self-confidence by deliberately doing these things - in a careful way.

"Do it slowly, in small steps, consistently and compassionately," she advises.

Start with the smallest most manageable thing, which may simply involve making eye contact with a colleague in the corridor. It's very important to be your own friend in these anxious situations, says Donohoe. "What would you say to a friend who is feeling anxious in this situation? Be supportive of yourself rather than critical," he counsels.

11 Test Your Beliefs

Review your progress and test your beliefs as you go along, says Gordon.

Were people as judgemental and critical as you feared?

"You'll find that very often these things have not happened. Most people will find the things they feared are not happening and that people are not as judgemental and critical as they had assumed."

"Shy people can be afraid they'll end up embarrassed," says Murray.

To get away from this uncomfortable feeling, boost your self-esteem by doing something you're good at, such as art or photography, in a small group, she suggests. "This is called Exposure Therapy - you start in a small way doing things that you find uncomfortable and then gradually expand your reach."

12 Avoid mind reading

This is about assuming that you know what other people are thinking, says Gordon - more often than not, she quips, they're probably not thinking about you at all. So stop assuming they are all critically evaluating your clothes/hair/make-up or the way you speak.

"We all think that we know what is going on in other people's mind," says Gordon, "but often what's happening is that we are we projecting our own fears and worries into the minds of others.

"So if I'm worried about my weight, I might believe that my friend is thinking that I need to lose weight; if I'm worried about coming across as stressed, then I think my friend is going to notice any sign of stress or anxiety, like blushing or hand shaking.

"Mind reading is about believing that you know what others are thinking," she says.

For example, 'she thinks that I am boring', 'he thinks I'm not saying enough', 'they know I am no good at this', 'everyone can see I'm nervous'. "This is not true! Mostly, what people think about is their own lives, their own worries, and they only have a small proportion of their attention devoted to us. Even this small proportion is positive, if they're a friend and if they're not a friend, they have stopped thinking about us already."

So what should we do to avoid mind reading? When we notice that we are mind reading, we can challenge some of our own negative beliefs about ourselves, she advises.

Ask yourself what the facts are? How long has this person been my friend? Maybe my friend accepts me just as I am, even if I don't. Stop thinking about the conversation and throw yourself into it; try to go with the flow of the conversation. Notice that when we focus on the conversation, rather than on ourselves, we tend to feel more relaxed and less self-conscious.

13 Avoid catastrophic thinking

Acknowledge that a particular social situation probably went far better than you imagined, Gordon says.

"People often feel an event was worse than it was," she explains. "They feel 'Oh, I went so red, everyone must have known I was a mess!' when actually it was fine."

"Recognise that you may be engaging in catastrophic thinking and that the event was not as bad as you think it was."

Later, don't dwell on a particular event, she counsels. "Accept that you did the best you could, and now move on. Be kind to yourself - and acknowledge that you did your best."

14 What do you want to change?

Think about how your shyness affects your life, asks Gordon. Ask yourself what you'd like to change in your day-to-day life. Would you like to be able to ask someone to go for a cup of coffee, or invite somebody out on a date? Would you like to be able to go to a party without getting into a bundle of nerves? Then decide to do something about it - and take it in small steps.

15 Shy Children

If you have a shy child, it's never a good idea to throw him or her into a big group or club, warns Murray.

"Encourage your child to join a small group of three or four children - it could be an art group or playing chess; anything as long as it involves just a few people.

"This helps the child because they will find it easier to deal with a few people."

It seems obvious, she says, but some parents who are naturally extrovert can expect their kids to be. "This is unreasonable as the children may not be extrovert - and don't have to be," points out Murray, who says the old advice of 'join a club' is well past its sell by date. Joining a club is hard, even for adults, so parents should not give advice that even an adult would be reluctant to follow. Instead, she advises, set something up with a friend, a one on one, or ideally, four children, and for a short time.

The activity should involve doing something enjoyable, so that shy children don't feel judged either for their doing of the thing, or the social skills they display while doing it. "Feeling judged is what kids want to avoid. So leave them alone with a few others and come back in 20 minutes, and take them home," she advises.

Ask how it went casually and repeat for either a little longer or a little shorter, next time, listening to what they said and what they liked and disliked about it. "Give more of what they liked and less of what they disliked it's about the children, not the adults," she explains.