Hi guys! Today I want to tackle this reader question about overcoming social anxiety:
“I struggle with social anxiety. Recently my extrovert husband and I (introvert, sensitive, empath) moved to a new city and it terrifies me to go out and meet new people … I would love to hear your take on solutions to deal with social anxiety and related physical symptoms such as blushing that is a huge problem for me that always tends to amplify each interaction when meeting new people ie: even bumping into an acquaintance at the store will spur on this response.”
Me too! I blush. I blush when running into an acquaintance in the store, when paying for my groceries, when ordering in a restaurant. I also blush when speaking with someone who appears more confident than I am, when people are looking at me, and when someone tells a dirty joke.
I blush and I get hot and I start sweating even though I’m typically always too cold. I get flustered. I can’t process what people are saying and I can’t find the right words to respond.
It’s like there’s a traffic jam in my brain with everyone zooming in different directions and nobody being able to get anywhere. It’s embarrassing and exhausting. It’s frustrating times a million.
As a result, I dislike running errands, making phone calls, and being the center of any kind of attention. Good or bad. Approaching strangers with a request. Walking across a crowded space where everyone else is sitting.
Just. Don’t. Look. At. Me.
Dear reader, I know this problem well. I also know what has helped me the most in dealing with this problem. Here’s my top three.
Overcoming Social Anxiety: The Three Things That Have Helped Me The Most
1. Discovering That I’m A Highly Sensitive Person And Understanding What That Means
When I discovered that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), I came to understand that the root of many of my physical social anxiety symptoms was not fear but a nervous system that is highly sensitive to all kinds of stimuli, including social ones.
I recently wrote an article about how to tell the difference between anxiety symptoms and signs of high sensitivity, so I’m not going to get into too much detail about that difference here.
But here’s how understanding high sensitivity has helped me with overcoming social anxiety:
I NO LONGER GET MAD AT MYSELF FOR FAILING TO WILL THESE SYMPTOMS TO GO AWAY
- To at least some extent, the physical manifestations of high sensitivity are always going to be with me. My nervous system gets stimulated easier than the average person’s nervous system and it happens so fast – unconsciously – that I can’t control it. This is something I was born with and it’s not going away. So I’ve stopped trying to “will” the symptoms to go away, which I think was actually making things worse anyway. (“Please don’t blush, please don’t blush, please don’t blush” is pretty much guaranteed to lead to blushing. 🙂 )
I NO LONGER LABEL MY SYMPTOMS AS FEAR
- I used to think that many of the physical symptoms I was experiencing were fear. I would notice them and then I would look for reasons why I was scared to justify my feelings. And guess what? I would always find things and then feel even more anxious. Nowadays, I realize that what I’m feeling is overstimulation. So instead of “man, I’m anxious” I’ll say “man, my body is fired up” or “man, my brain is overstimulated”. What my brain needs in that moment is a break – not to look for reasons to be scared. Labeling the symptoms as fear usually escalates them. Labeling the symptoms as something other than fear often helps to make them disappear faster.
- And just to clarify this fear business a bit further, it’s helpful to keep in mind that we are not typically scared of the people we encounter. We are not scared that they will morph into terrible monsters that will eat us alive. Instead, we are scared that the people we encounter will notice our overstimulation. We are scared that people will see us blushing or sweating or searching for words and we are terrified of the consequences. I will have more to say about how to cope with this fear in section #3 below.
I NO LONGER ALLOW UNNECESSARY STRESS TO MAKE MY ANXIETY SYMPTOMS WORSE
- Taking care of my needs as a highly sensitive person (managing overstimulation, getting enough rest, etc.) means I’m generally much less stressed. Less stress = fewer anxiety symptoms of all kinds. Less overwhelm = better ability to cope when anxiety symptoms do come up.
I NO LONGER FEEL ALONE
- It has been a relief to find out that high sensitivity is not a disease. There is nothing really wrong with me. I didn’t always have the skills to manage my high sensitivity, but now that I do, it’s more of an asset than a liability. Moreover, there are many others like me. As a matter of fact, when I walk around the grocery store wrapped up in worry over people noticing my discomfort, every fifth or sixth person I encounter is probably battling the exact same feelings.
2. Living A Full Life
When I say “a full life,” I don’t mean the extravert version where you follow a relentless schedule packed with one stimulating people-y activity after another.
I mean a life full of activities that I – a highly sensitive intuitive introvert – am genuinely interested in, that are aligned with my personality, and that add to my well-being: reading, writing, house projects, exercise, sleep, cooking, doing stuff with my kids, long conversations with the handful of people I feel very connected with. Regular but not-too-frequent adventures out into the world whenever the rewards are bound to exceed the costs. Say, a museum or a live performance of some sort or a weekend trip to a new city.
This is my version of a full life and yours may look very different. But whatever the particulars, here’s how living a full life has helped me with overcoming social anxiety:
I NO LONGER OBSESS ABOUT MY SYMPTOMS ALL THE TIME
- Because I always have quite a few projects going that naturally draw my attention, I don’t spend a lot of time obsessing about how uncomfortable I feel in certain situations. I simply forget to worry about my blushing and awkwardness, because I have so many other things to think about. It’s not like I never ever worry, but I do it a lot less than I used to.
I NO LONGER LET ANXIETY RULE MY LIFE
- Fighting anxiety is hard. If you spend all day every day thinking about anxiety and facing fears and enduring weird symptoms, you will burn out and lose your will to live. You will end up not only anxious but exhausted and depressed as well. Not that I have any experience or anything. 😉 In order to avoid this vicious cycle, it helps to put at least as much focus on adding positive things to your life (whatever you enjoy) as on trying to get rid of the negative things (anxiety).
I NO LONGER WASTE MY EFFORTS
- Since I know exactly what I want and need in order to live my version of a full life, I no longer waste my energy on other people’s versions. I will work through my anxiety and tolerate the discomfort to get what I want and need. I won’t put forth this effort just for shits and giggles. In other words, if I feel like I don’t have enough connection in my life, I will seek out new people despite my anxiety. If I feel like my life is already pretty full, I won’t bother just to meet someone else’s quota for the number of people you are supposed to be associated with.
3. Working On Caring Less About What Other People Think
The biggest reason I’m no longer terrified to meet new people is that some random stranger’s opinion of me isn’t that important. And I’m not just saying that. I truly believe it and feel it.
Getting to this point has been a long process. It’s not like I woke up one morning and decided that I just wasn’t going to care what people think of me ever again.
Some of this has happened naturally with age and life experience. You figure out what truly matters to you and what doesn’t. You figure out who matters. You figure out that you can survive some seriously bad shit, compared to which blushing in the grocery store seems like a cakewalk.
At the same time, much of this transformation has taken place deliberately, with intention. Using the methods outlined in this article, I have worked on changing my mindset from this:
Omg everyone is going to see how uncomfortable I am.
Omg everyone is going to think I’m weird.
Omg everyone is going to laugh at me.
Omg everyone is going to think I’m incompetent.
Omg everyone is going to get mad at me.
Omg everyone is going to yell at me.
Omg everyone is going to hate me.
I need love and connection just like all humans, but I don’t need everyone to approve of me and I don’t need everyone to think highly of me.
The human brain evolved to care about other people’s judgments, because being kicked out of the tribe used to mean death. But it’s now 2018 and I don’t need to buy into this fear frenzy my brain likes to put on. In 2018, I don’t need to kiss ass in order for someone to share their meat and berries with me. In 2018, if I get kicked out of the tribe, I can always find another one that fits me better.
I don’t judge people based on how uncomfortable they seem at first meeting. As a matter of fact, if a person blushes, I’m instantly more interested, because it’s probably another HSP. I like kind, compassionate people and if someone chooses to judge me because I’m blushing or otherwise awkward, s/he is probably not the sort of person I want in my life anyway.
I’m great at many things, but I don’t have to be great at everything. I sometimes get overstimulated in social situations and that’s ok.