Tips for Managing Social Anxiety
If worrying about embarrassing yourself is getting in your way, some strategies for beating the fear
Clinical Expert: Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP
What You'll Learn
- Why does facing anxiety help make it go away?
- What makes anxiety worse?
- What can help you relax in social situations?
Many teenagers — and adults, too! — get anxious when we have to do something we’re unsure of. Whether it’s about speaking in front of the class, trying something new, or making a phone call, we worry that we might embarrass ourselves or make a mistake.
But it’s important not to avoid things because they make you anxious. That helps in the short run, but the anxiety will still be there, maybe even stronger, the next time. Instead, if you try to push though the anxiety, you will get stronger and it will get weaker.
When you push through anxious feelings to do something that makes you nervous, you’re learning you have the skills to come out the other side. You can practice by easing yourself into things that make you nervous. Start small. Set realistic goals. If you want to join a club, try sitting in on a meeting first. If you have trouble ordering at a restaurant, practice saying your order ahead of time. The more you face your anxiety, the less scary it will feel.
Sometimes when you try something, it doesn’t go exactly how you hoped. But when that happens, you’re learning how to deal with a bad outcome. Say you want to ask someone to be your lab partner. They might say no. They might already have a partner. And that’s okay! You can just move on, no big deal.
Yoga, exercise and meditating can all help you relax when you’re feeling anxious. Caffeine can make anxiety worse, so you might try cutting back on coffee and soda if you often feel anxious. If you feel really anxious or anxious all the time, it’s a good idea to talk to your parents. They can get you help, but only if you let them know what’s going on.
If you are feeling shyer than you’d like to be, you’re in good company. A lot of kids — and adults — say they get anxious during social situations. Maybe it’s speaking up in class or making a phone call or just trying something new. Whatever it is, if your anxiety is bothering you, there are some things you can try on your own to help with managing social anxiety.
Don’t avoid things
Experts agree that avoiding situations that make us anxious can actually make things worse in the long run. “Getting out of something you didn’t want to do might make you feel better in the moment,” says Rachel Busman, PsyD, a psychologist, “but you will still feel anxious the next time you’re asked to do it.” And the things that make us anxious—talking to new people, giving presentations—aren’t going to go away.
While leaving your comfort zone isn’t easy, it can be very good for you. That’s because our anxiety tends to go away when we start doing the things that make us anxious. So when a situation comes up that makes you nervous, like walking into the cafeteria alone or asking someone to be your lab partner, try to face your fear and see what happens. “Chances are the worst outcome that you fear won’t happen,” says Dr. Busman. “And if it does, you might find you have the skills to handle it.”
As an experiment, try doing something that makes you nervous. It’s fine to start small and ease yourself into it. Picking goals that feel realistic to you is important—you don’t need to run for class president. If you think you might like to join a club, try just sitting in on a meeting at first. Or if you’d like to volunteer at the local animal shelter but you’re feeling nervous about it, start by bringing a friend or family member along for company.
Whatever you do, you’ll find that it gets easier over time. That’s because by practicing the things that make you nervous you are actually expanding your ability to handle them. This is true even when things don’t work out exactly like you might hope. For example, a lot of kids hesitate to ask teachers questions because they worry they’re already supposed to know the answer. But if you decide to ask your teacher anyway and he responds, “You already learned that so go ask a friend,” you’ll probably find that hearing that isn’t such a big deal after all. It’s just another kind of practice.
Doing things like yoga and exercising can also help you regulate anxiety. Conversely, caffeine can make people feel more anxious, so you might want to cut back on soda and coffee in general, and especially before doing things that make you anxious. That can help with managing social anxiety.
But if you’re feeling really anxious, and doing these things feels impossible for you, Dr. Busman says it’s always a good idea to talk to your parents. “Tell them how you’re feeling. Anxiety is something that you can definitely get help for, but telling someone that you need it is the first step.”