How to Overcome Social Anxiety: 5 Effective Tips From an Expert
With the correct support system, anyone can learn how to overcome social anxiety. Here, youth mental health expert and Charlie Health Clinical Director Dr. Caroline Fenkel outlines her tips for managing this phobia.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
Updated: October 9, 2023
Table of Contents
Ask your peers if they’ve ever had anxiety talking with someone new at a party, and many will probably say yes. Raise the questions with the adults in your life, and you’ll likely see even more say they’ve felt that way before. Feeling nervous in certain social situations is completely normal, but if your worries about socializing affect your daily life, you might be dealing with a mental health condition called social phobia.
Social phobia, now commonly known as social anxiety disorder, is a type of anxiety disorder defined by extreme fear or anxiety in social situations, including eating in the cafeteria, making small talk, using public restrooms, or exercising at the gym. Even being called on in class or making a phone call can be triggering for some people.
For many teens with social phobia, the potential distress is so overwhelming that they’ll try to avoid any social situations out of their comfort zone. For others, social anxiety can cause them to overcompensate in social settings, trying to do anything they can to fit in. Luckily, social phobia is manageable when you understand its symptoms and have the skills to cope. Keep reading to learn more about how to overcome social anxiety.
How to overcome social anxiety: tips for confidence
Just like many mental health conditions, overcoming social anxiety is possible with the proper support. Below are some tips to help you cope with social anxiety and build confidence. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have to try all of these tips at once, and this process can be gradual—it’s normal to have moments along the way where you feel more nervous or can’t face your fears. Building confidence and dealing with social anxiety is a journey that looks different for everyone, and these tips are just an outline.
Recognize when it’s time to get help for social anxiety
Try cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of mental health support
Challenge your negative thoughts
Ease into social situations that scare you
Avoid using alcohol as a social crutch
Recognize when it’s time to get help
Social anxiety disorder often goes untreated, but that doesn’t have to be the case for you. One national study found that, on average, people started feeling social anxiety around the age of 15, but most, about 80%, didn’t get help for it. And, those who did usually waited 10 to 15 years before seeking treatment. If you think that you have social phobia, be the person who breaks that mold and seek help from family, friends, or mental health professionals.
Explore CBT and other forms of therapy
As mentioned, one way to get help for social anxiety is to pursue therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to manage phobias and other anxiety disorders. For those living with social anxiety disorder, CBT can help them understand the why and how of their thought cycles. Once a person is aware of inaccurate or negative thought patterns, they can view the situation with a clear head and respond accordingly.
For example, in CBT for social anxiety, someone might learn to challenge and replace thoughts like “Everyone is judging me” with more rational ones like “I can’t control what others think, and they’re likely not as focused on me as I think they are,” helping them feel more at ease in social settings.
Challenge negative thoughts
We are often our own worst critics, making it easy to get stuck in our own heads. When we host negative thoughts like, “I’m too shy, and I don’t have anything to say,” or, “People probably think I’m stupid or boring,” we contribute to our fears and anxiety. Instead, try to reframe those thoughts (the same kind of skill you’d learn in CBT). For example, maybe you think you acted shy the last time you saw some friends from college. If you plan to see those people again, consider coming prepared with a fact or story to discuss, and remind yourself that you have things to contribute to social situations. This offers you an opportunity to change how you perceive yourself, as well as how you feel that others see you.
Ease into situations that scare you
Exposure is the process of facing and eventually overcoming your fears. The idea behind situational exposure is that starting with less scary scenarios gives you time to build up the confidence to face situations that cause a lot of anxiety. Remember, coping with anxiety is a lifelong process, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Here’s a high-level overview of how to practice situational exposure in social settings:
1) Identify social situations that scare you—for example, talking to new people by yourself at a party.
2) Challenge yourself with more manageable social scenarios. Instead of approaching a stranger alone the next time you’re at a party, consider asking a friend to introduce you to someone you don’t know. That way, you won’t be talking to someone alone, and you’ll have a mutual connection with them.
3) Prioritize positive self-talk and relaxation techniques. Tell yourself it’s brave to talk to new people and remind yourself that you can end the conversation by saying you need to get some water when you’re done talking. Also, practice relaxation techniques by taking deep breaths while you chat.
Avoid using alcohol as a social crutch
Let’s say you work up the enthusiasm and courage to go to a party. Once you’re there, someone offers you a beer, and you realize that it’s actually just what you need to relax and stop worrying so much. While alcohol or other substances may seem like the solution to stress, drinking too much can exacerbate anxiety, cause bad moods, and disrupt sleep, data shows. Plus, other research shows a link between social anxiety disorder and an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, meaning those with social anxiety should be particularly cognizant of their alcohol use. Instead of using alcohol as a social crutch, consider other tactics that may make you feel more comfortable in a social setting. For instance, ask a friend to stay with you throughout the night, wear an outfit you feel comfortable in, and prepare some questions you may ask a new person.
What causes social anxiety?
Researchers don’t know exactly why some people develop social phobia (or any anxiety disorder, really), but they have a few theories.
One major factor may be genetics. Researchers have found that people whose relatives have social anxiety are more likely to develop the condition themselves. Also, studies on twins (a common way researchers study genetics) show that if one identical twin has social anxiety, the chance of the other having it is higher than for fraternal twins. However, researchers note that environmental factors—like parenting and family environment—may also be at play in these studies.
Other studies show that children and teens who are shy, sensitive, or withdrawn might be at a greater risk for developing social phobia, as are those with a physical condition that may draw unwanted attention. We also know that stressful events—like bullying, abuse, and public embarrassment—are common causes of social anxiety. And speaking of stress, stories from the last few years suggest that the fear and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened social phobia among young people.
How do I know if I have social anxiety?
Since it was identified as its own phobia in the 1960s, social phobia has become a more commonly discussed mental health condition. In fact, by some counts, social anxiety disorder affects about 15 million American adults, making it the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder. According to experts, most people first experience social anxiety disorder symptoms in their teenage or childhood years.
With society’s recent (and much welcomed) push to prioritize mental health, we’re now seeing more and more people share their experiences with social phobia. For example, in 2021, renowned Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open tournament due to mental health concerns, including social anxiety. Actress Lili Reinhart—who stars in the TV hit Riverdale—is another person in the spotlight who has opened up about her struggles with social anxiety.
Social anxiety can manifest in various emotional and physical symptoms—the most common of which are listed below. Not everyone experiencing social anxiety will show all of these signs with the same severity level, and someone may have some of these symptoms without social anxiety. That being said, if you or someone you know is showing several of the below signs consistently, it’s a good idea to seek support from a mental health professional.
Emotional signs and symptoms of social anxiety
- Excessive anxiety in everyday social situations
- Intense worry for days, weeks, or even months before a social situation
- Fear of being watched or judged by others
- Fear that you’ll embarrass yourself
- Fear that others will notice that you’re nervous or uncomfortable
Physical signs and symptoms of social anxiety
- Rapid heart rate
- Blushing, sweating, or trembling
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty making eye contact
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Blanking out
- Rigid body posture or speaking with an overly soft voice
Behavioral signs and symptoms of social anxiety
- Avoiding places where you might run into other people
- Avoiding social situations
- Staying quiet to avoid being noticed or embarrassed
- Drinking alcohol or using other substances to soothe your nerves before social situations
Managing social anxiety at Charlie Health
If you or a loved one are struggling with social anxiety symptoms, Charlie Health is here to help.
Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines group sessions, personal therapy, and individual therapy to support people dealing with a range of complex mental health conditions, including social anxiety and generalized anxiety. Our expert clinicians practice a range of evidence-based therapies—including cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy—to support people in managing social anxiety. Also, for clients dealing with fears about social interactions, group sessions serve as a safe social situation to practice social skills with like-minded peers dealing with similar mental health challenges.