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  • Randall Wilson, Psy.D.

How to overcome social anxiety in 3 simple steps

If you notice that you tend to be anxious in social situations, spend too much time up in your head during conversations, or miss out on important life events because you don't want to deal with other people, then chances are you are experiencing what is called Social Anxiety. And it turns out you're not alone. If you ask some of your closest friends and family these same questions, you're likely to find out that they experience some level of social anxiety as well. Social anxiety is very common, with somewhere around 10-13% of people meeting criteria for the diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder at some point in their lifetime, and an even higher proportion of people who experience more moderate (sub-clinical) symptoms of social anxiety.

There are a number of reasons why so many people are experiencing social anxiety nowadays. One explanation is that the social environments in which we find ourselves in the modern world do not match the social environments of our early ancestors. Prior to the advent of agriculture, human beings tended to live in small groups, ranging from the size of an extended family to a maximum of around 100 people. Each person in the group would know every other person in that group and all of their business in great detail. In today's world, a city-dwelling person could pass by 100 people before they've made it a block from their home, and might interact personally with dozens of strangers in just 1 day! This evolutionary mismatch can lead to a level of social anxiety that makes it hard to function in every day social interactions.

Another factor to consider is our overuse of technology. As of 2023, the average American spends 4 hours and 25 minutes on their cell phone each day. On top of this, many of us spent nearly a year isolated from intimate social interaction and relying on telework during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in even more social anxiety. Spending so much time on our devices and disconnected from real human to human interaction can result in a decline in our social skills and can lead to the development of social anxiety over time.

Finally, social anxiety can result from anxiety in other areas of life spilling over into the realm of social interaction. If you've experienced trauma, struggled with other anxiety-related issues such as OCD, panic attacks, phobias, etc., you're far more likely than the average person to experience social anxiety.

Regardless of the cause, the good new is that social anxiety is one of the most treatable psychological issues in the world of mental health. There are numerous, evidence-based approaches to overcoming social anxiety. Most of them include some level of "exposure" work which involves intentionally engaging in the situations that we fear most, in a gradual way, and over time changing your relationship with those situations and with your own anxiety. In addition to good quality, evidence-based treatment, here are 3 simple ingredients to focus on when attempting to overcome your social anxiety:

1. Adopt a WE mentality as opposed to a THEM mentality in your social interactions.

To address the issue of evolutionary mismatch, one of the most important things we must do in order to feel comfortable in social situations is to alter the way in which we relate to other people. In the modern world, many of the people we interact with are going to fall into the THEM category... strangers, customers, potential partners on a first date... these are all unfamiliar people and we're likely to interact with them with a higher degree of anxiety, caution, and guardedness. To some degree, this is healthy - you don't want to lend your debit card to someone you just met on the subway - however, this can become excessive and lead to a level of anxiety and social withdrawal that is unhealthy. To get into a WE mentality, start to ask yourself what it is that you might have in common with the person you are interacting with. If it's a coworker this could be something as simple as acknowledging to yourself that you are both on the same "team" (your place of employment). Maybe you and the other person are both parents, maybe you're both runners or yoga people, maybe you both love good food! Seek out that common ground and start to think of your interaction as something that you and the other person are in together as a team.

2. Get curious

A common issue in social anxiety is to be overly focused on your own behavior and others' perceived/predicted reactions to it. This can leave a person paralyzed as they attempt to engage in conversation while simultaneously monitoring their responses too closely. One of the quickest ways to sidestep this trap is to get CURIOUS about the other person (or topic of discussion). When we're overly focused on our own behavior, that becomes the center of our attention, however when we become interested or curious in something outside of your own skin, it draws our attention outward. So get curious about the person you're interacting with. Find out what their thoughts are, what they're interested in, what makes them tick. And by the way, it turns out that people LOVE when someone else takes an interest in them and the things they enjoy, so by doing this you're likely to win bonus points with the person you're interacting with.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice!

One interesting fact about social anxiety is that while people may experience terrible levels of fear, worry, and negative impacts on their social functioning, they rarely stop and actually practice their social skills. This is a really unhelpful double standard that we have around social interaction. If you realized you were not performing well with any other type of skill - playing an instrument, speaking a language, cooking food, etc. - and that poor performance was really hindering you, chances are that you would commit time to practicing that skill. But not with social interactions. For some reason, we all seem to think that we should just be good at social interaction naturally, without any practice. So approach social interaction like any other skill. Get in front of a mirror, or find someone who you trust, and practice being however it is you want to be in social interaction. If you want to be funny, practice making jokes. If you want to be warm and friendly, practice listening and responding in a caring way. Practice different phrases you might say, facial expressions you might use, body language you might display. This will help get you closer to being the person you want to be in social interactions and reduce anxiety by giving you a sense of confidence and self-efficacy.

Social anxiety is an extremely unpleasant trap to find yourself in, and getting out of the trap is typically not a quick or easy task. However, it is VERY doable. If you focus on psychologically joining together with other people, getting curious in social interactions, and doing the work of actually practicing social skills, you can and will improve your social anxiety over time. And of course, if you find that you're struggling to do it on your own, reach out to a professional for some assistance. Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps you get to a place where you can enjoy engaging with your fellow human beings!

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