People may call you shy or socially awkward, but only those with an actual social phobia, or social anxiety will truly understand the sickening fear that is associated with even the idea of meeting someone new. If the idea of being in a crowd of people, whether it be large or small, makes you want to run in the other direction and lock yourself in an empty room, then chances are you have a form of social phobia. Crowds might not be the problem – it might be just associating with another human being that fills you with dread.
Whether it be anxiety over meeting the guy at the checkout in the supermarket, or an acquaintance that your friend or family member wants you to meet, social phobias can really affect a quality of life.
It is impossible to avoid interactions with strangers unless you stay in your house 24 hours a day, but of course this is not a real solution to the problem. You need to be able to overcome your fear so you can live a normal life – go shopping, go to the doctor, get a job in customer service, attend parties and functions or even just walk down the street! All of these things involve meeting of new people, and are almost impossible for someone with a social phobia to do. So what can you do to overcome social phobia now that it has gotten to the point where it is a problem?
Identify the problem situations
Not all people with social phobias are triggered by all human interaction. Some people are only terrified of meeting new people, some are filled with dread when faced with formal situations, and others have issues with relaxed interactions. Like any phobia, there are no laws or rules – every person will be different. So the first step to overcoming it is to identify exactly what and when you are scared. Is it large or small crowds, or both? Are you fine at work but cannot handle casual get-togethers where you do not have set rules about what to talk about, or the opposite? Perhaps it is a total phobia and you cannot stand to be around anyone other than yourself for any period of time.
Pay attention to things other than yourself and your fear.
Studies have shown that introverts and overly shy people have a tendency to focus on internal feelings a lot more than other people. So someone with social phobias will be the same. When you go out, rather than concentrating on how you are feeling and what you look like, make a mental effort to pay attention to things away from yourself. Even if it is just the colour of the wallpaper or the way people do their hair. This will move your focus away from your fear and you will subconsciously forget about your anxieties.
Repeat positive affirmations
Social phobias feed on negativity and exist from fear. Someone with a social phobia is not avoiding other people or situations because they are happy or feel good about themselves – rather the opposite. So the more negative you are, the more the fear will grow. One way of becoming more positive is to repeat positive affirmations regularly and with conviction. Better yet, write them down and leave them where you will see them. Affirmations like ‘you are beautiful’ and ‘people want to talk to you’ are perfect. If you read them enough then you may start to believe them, which will effectively help your phobia.
Get a safety object
A safety object is kind of like a security blanket, but much less obvious. A good example might be a piece of jewellery that means something to you, or even something like a small figurine or stress ball. Something small and unobtrusive that can fit in your pocket- you don’t want to draw attention to it as it could cause your anxiety to reappear. Basically when you are in a social setting and you feel yourself getting anxious, then fiddle or hold the ‘safety object’ and focus on it in your hand. This can have a calming effect and be a real source of comfort in a moment of distress.
You may notice when you are in a social setting and you are starting to get anxious and upset, that one obvious change will be your breathing. It will turn erratic, heavy and fast. It can even lead to hyperventilation as you will be unable to get enough oxygen to your brain which just makes the situation so much worse. So practice breathing exercises to calm you down when you feel yourself getting anxious. Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold the breath for 2 seconds and breathe out through your mouth slowly. Slow deliberate breathing is the key. Make sure you are comfortable and breathing fresh air (get away from smokers).
Bite the bullet and prepare for a social situation
Unfortunately sometimes the only way to overcome a fear is to face it. If you are terrified of meeting new people at social gatherings, then you need to work with a trusted friend (for backup) and attend one them from frequently until you are used to the setting. The more you avoid something you are scared of, the more your brain calibrates itself to accommodate that fear. Face your fear and socialize. Do not have unrealistic expectations though and make sure you give yourself an out if it does end up being too difficult. But do not give up because of one failure.
Work with a therapist
Sometimes self help is all you need to overcome some issues, but if you feel that you have tried everything unsuccessfully and you keep falling back to square one, there is no shame at all in working with a therapist. They are there to listen and just might be able to identify an underlying issue that you did not even know you had. It just might be the best decision you ever make. If you cannot bring yourself to see a therapist in person, there are online therapy sessions available.