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Takeaway: Everyone understands what it’s like to be nervous in a high-stakes social setting but for some people, social anxiety keeps them from living a fulfilling and happy life. In this post, I explain what social anxiety is and how to cope with it in your daily life. 

What to Do When Social Anxiety Strikes – 4 Coping Skills for Overcoming Social Anxiety

Everyone understands what it’s like to be nervous in a high-stakes social setting. Most people can relate to getting stage fright, jitters before a public speaking event, or a fluttery stomach before a first date. But if you have an extreme fear of social events that keeps you from living a fulfilling, happy life, then that’s worth taking a closer look at.

In my therapy practice, I work with teens and young adults who struggle with how to deal with social anxiety. There are ways to manage the impacts of socializing. With time and practice, you can learn to feel more confident and capable in social settings. Overcoming social anxiety is possible. Let’s take a look at what social anxiety is and how to cope with it in your daily life. 

What Is Social Anxiety?

First, what is social anxiety? Social anxiety is a fear of social events or being around other people. If you have a desire to make meaningful connections with others but fear holds you back, you may have social anxiety. 

It presents differently for different people. However, it typically involves some level of intrusive, negative, and repetitive thoughts and worries around socializing.

It often affects introverts more than extroverts. It’s also become more of a problem for my clients since the onset of Covid-19. During the pandemic, everyone spent so much time by themselves that getting back out and being in public has been a tough transition and has made overcoming social anxiety difficult.

Unfortunately, social anxiety can feel debilitating. It’s similar to other forms of anxiety in its presentation. It can result in a pounding heart, sweating, trouble breathing, fatigue, pain symptoms, or panic attacks. If you experience social anxiety, you may struggle with the following:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty making new friends
  • Difficulty dating
  • Loneliness
  • Depression or anxiety in other areas of your life

The fear of socializing can result in bad or embarrassing experiences. This in turn reinforces the fear and strengthens the anxious response. 

How to Deal With Social Anxiety – 4 Coping Skills 

If you struggle with social anxiety, know you’re not alone. Here are four of my best coping skills for overcoming social anxiety so you can get out there and feel more confident in social settings.

1. Regulate your breathing

If you’re prone to panic attacks or difficulty breathing, focusing on your breath can help calm you down and soothe your nervous system. 

Try square breathing. With this technique, put your hand on your heart if that feels comfortable for you. Then: 

  • Inhale for 5 seconds
  • Hold the inhale for 5 seconds
  • Exhale for 5 seconds
  • Hold the exhale for 5 seconds

Holding each phase of your breath can help you feel calmer and more grounded.

2. Progressive muscle relaxation

When we feel anxious, our bodies tend to seize up and get very tense. We often don’t even notice this is happening, but it can have a big impact on how we feel emotionally and physically. When you realize you’re anxious, try the following steps to loosen up your body and help you relax:

  1. Purposely tense up your muscles as much as possible. You can start up by your chest and work your way down each muscle group, or you can simply tense up all of the muscles in your body at once. Try both to see which works best for you. Ball your fists up and curl your toes, too. 
  2. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Hold the muscular tension for at least 5-10 seconds. 
  3. Then, release and fully relax. You might notice your body feels looser and calmer after only a few seconds of doing this.

Repeat these steps until you feel more relaxed.

3. Journal it out

Consider the source of your anxiety before you head out for a social engagement. You may think you already know what is going on for you, but the real reasons for your social anxiety may be lurking below the surface.

Anxiety tends to be strongest when its source feels mysterious. So try journaling to get to the root of your anxiety. Here are some questions to explore:

  • What about this specific social outing feels stressful for me?
  • What am I really afraid of? Is it fear of judgment, rejection, looking stupid or foolish? Something else?
  • Are there ways I can mitigate my stress?
  • What would help me feel better about this event or gathering?
  • Who can I ask for help or support to help me through this?

Asking yourself questions like these can help you acknowledge where your anxiety is coming from. This can generate self-compassion and understanding, which go a long way when learning how to deal with social anxiety.

4. Try the “Worst-Case Scenario” exercise

Imagining all the worst-case scenarios that could take place might sound, well, terrible. But actually, this is a great exercise to try when you’re struggling with anxiety prior to heading to a social event. Writing down each worst-case outcome sounds miserable but can bring a more logical and light-hearted perspective into the picture. Don’t believe me? Try it out and see for yourself. Here’s what to do:

  1. Write down the specific situation you’re worried about. (For example: Will I say something embarrassing in front of my date tonight?)

  1. Beneath this worry, write down what would happen if your worry came true. (If I say something embarrassing, I won’t be able to recover and I’ll ruin the date.)

  1. Beneath this worry, write down the next worst thing that might happen as a result. (If the date is a failure, it will be so awkward to have to sit there and eat together in silence.)

  1. Beneath this worry, write down the next worst thing that might happen as a result. (My whole night will be a disaster and nobody will ever love me again.)

  1. Continue this process until you get to a point where it feels lighter or a bit silly. If you don’t come to a natural ending point within 8-10 lines, stop and take a few deep breaths. It may be helpful for you to work with a therapist to help you navigate this particular situation.

  1. Consider what you wrote. How likely is it that your worst-case scenario will actually come true? What is it that you’re really worried about?

  1. Acknowledge and honor your worry. Then write a final few sentences about your scenario, including your more realistic perspective. (If I say something embarrassing during my date, I might freeze up and feel awkward. It might even ruin the date. But if my date is so up-tight that they can’t deal with a little awkwardness, then it probably wouldn’t work out between us anyway. And even if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean I’m unlovable or stupid. I’ll find someone who likes me for who I am, because I’m worthy of love just as I am now.)

Playing this “worry script” out until the end can help you realize your worst fears probably won’t come true. And even if they do, it likely won’t be the end of the world. Even if you get embarrassed or feel awkward, you’ll recover. This change in perspective can give you a much-needed boost in confidence and help stop the endless worry cycle.

Therapy Can Help You Figure Out How to Deal With Social Anxiety

Want support in saying goodbye to your social anxiety? Consider therapy.

I can help you learn how to navigate new social experiences, practice fear-facing skills, regulate scary emotions, and feel more confident with strangers and friends alike. Together, we’ll work on overcoming social anxiety for good so you can live the life you want. 

Not ready for therapy? I have an online program called The Path to Peace, that teaches you foundational skills for managing anxiety on a daily basis. This is a self guided course with videos and resources to help you learn my 5 pillars to relieving worry thoughts and take some overwhelm off your plate. Click here to learn more! 

Meet the author

Justine Carino

Justine is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She helps teenagers, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflict and relationship issues. Justine is also the host of the podcast Thoughts From the Couch.