When you’re out in public, do you worry what others might think of you, or that they’ll judge you, or that you’ll embarrass yourself? It’s normal for people to want to create a good impression and be liked by others, and most people feel nervous or awkward in some situations. But for those who battle with shyness and/or social anxiety, the nervousness tends to lead to avoidance of situations, which can become unhelpful and unhealthy.
Three main causes of social anxiety are your genetic disposition, parent example, and previous upsetting or negative experiences. However, whatever the cause for your anxiety, there are wonderful strategies to manage and overcome it.
1. Know that you’re not alone
When we struggle with shyness or anxiety, it’s easy to think we’re the only ones who are anxious, and that everyone else is confident and carefree. Many people will face the same struggles that you do, in fact statistics tell us that 1 in 4 Australians struggle with anxiety. Even though people around you might not be talking openly about their shyness or anxiety, know that you’re not alone.
2. Anxiety is your overprotective friend
The fight-or-flight (or freeze) response can save our lives when we’re in danger. In life-threatening situations, it is there to protect you. But when we’re anxious, our fight-or-flight (or freeze) response comes out in everyday situations which aren’t life-threatening. If this happens to you, thank the anxiety for being your protective friend, but let it know that you can manage this situation without its help. You’ve got this.
Courage means choosing to face the situations that cause anxiety, worry or fear. Anxiety (or shyness or fear) and courage go hand-in-hand. The greater the anxiety, the more powerful the courage. Your anxiety is a catalyst for your acts of courage. Courage is an infinite internal resource of yours - it doesn’t get depleted and it’s strengthened every time you use it. Your courage is always fully charged, ready to use when needed. Feeling strong is not a pre-requisite for being courageous. So whatever giants you’re battling today, and any day, courage is yours.
4. Deep breathing exercises
Stressful situations and our fight-or-flight response affect the way we breathe. When we’re anxious we can become dizzy or light-headed, and feel our heart racing. Simple deep breathing exercises can help you stay calm and sends the message to your brain and your body that you’re not in danger. As soon as you feel anxious, take some deep, slow, regular breaths which will help you feel grounded and calm so that you can think clearly in facing your stress situation.
You can also research some specific breathing exercises (such as breathe in, hold it and count to 8, and then breathe out; repeat three or more times) or mindfulness meditation exercises to help you feel calm and ready to manage whatever situation you’re facing.
5. Face your fear-filled situations
Avoiding situations doesn’t reduce your anxiety. It may bring some momentary relief, but in the long term it simply feeds your anxiety or fear. And sometimes avoidance isn’t an option. Desensitisation is a way to gradually face your fears, starting with the small fears and working your way up to the most challenging situations. With practice and repetition, the fear diminishes and situations become manageable. Facing your fears doesn’t always mean the fear disappears immediately, but it gives you a plan in fighting back against the fear and instils confidence in knowing you’ve done this before so can do it again successfully.
6. Fight negative self-talk
Check your internal conversations. The more you tell yourself you can’t do something or aren’t good in social situations, the truer it will become. Practice positive self-talk, notice your successes (especially the small, everyday successes) and read positive affirmations or texts to build a positive, growth mindset.
7. Find support
Spend time with people who bring out your positivity, and reinforce your qualities and good characteristics. Spend time with people who are comfortable in situations that cause fear for you, and take tips from their example how to manage those situations.
If you need support from someone who will listen and help without judgement, you could consult a professional such as a psychologist or counsellor who can help you process your feelings in a safe space and provide tools to cope with your shyness or anxiety.
8. Allow for some discomfort
When you face your fears and step into new situations, there can be some initial discomfort. However, the discomfort usually diminishes and you grow in confidence. Instead of avoiding discomfort, know that it will pass – it doesn’t last indefinitely and it does settle down. Be prepared for some initial discomfort though, and know that your courage will see you through the situation and fear.
You can practice embracing discomfort by realising that you can’t control all situations and learning to go with the flow at times. Practice being flexible in everyday, non-fearful situations and this will build your resilience for facing discomfort and fear.
9. Stop Overthinking
Overthinking (also called ruminating) isn’t helpful to you in any way. If you catch yourself overthinking, distract yourself and stop those thoughts right in their tracks. One simple way to distract yourself is to focus on the present by naming in your mind:
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
10. Build on your successes
Every success you have in facing fears and uncomfortable situations builds your capacity to handle future situations. Take note of all your successes, even the small ones, and celebrate every success! And if you have a situation which you feel you didn’t handle well, don’t dwell on it. Focus on moving forward and future opportunities.