For some of us, it’s butterflies in the stomach. But for others, it’s a crippling fear of even leaving the house. Social anxiety can feel overwhelming, but you can take back control. Here, we give advice on overcoming social anxiety – from someone who experiences it herself
Anxiety has a large impact on so many people’s daily lives. Whether it’s anxiety about a job interview, dating, meeting new people, travelling, health, work or whether you suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder and have panic attacks, it can be incredibly overwhelming.
I have bipolar disorder – a mood disorder – and experience anxiety as part of this. When I was about 20, I started to have intense anxiety and panic attacks before social situations – so much so they would stop me from leaving the house.
I was fearful of being judged negatively by other people, and this caused the physical symptoms of social anxiety – a racing heart, clammy and sweaty skin, negative and fearful thoughts, low mood and wanting to hide from situations by cancelling them to stay at home. The result was that I’d then feel guilty about upsetting others.
The difficulty is that anxiety can often be triggered by something you’re not conscious of. It took time for me to realise that my limiting beliefs about social situations were due to my reaction to being diagnosed with a mental illness as a teenager. Although I still have to work with anxiety in my life, together with my family and friends, I’ve found how to make the social anxiety more manageable – here are my four top tips to hopefully help you too:
I’ve learned that anxiety does pass, if you sit with it and let it be – for me, it takes about 45 minutes. Even five minutes of sitting with it can be incredibly difficult and takes practice, but knowing it will pass and can't harm you is important. The anxiety symptoms are often worse than the event itself. I’ve learnt with social anxiety that if I can face the event, I can lean on my support network to help me through it.
When I’m really struggling with anxiety, my mum is extremely helpful. She’ll go with me for a walk or out in the car to get me used to being outside again and in the feared situation – exposure therapy. It can be incredibly hard to do this because you may not want to be outside the house, let alone go out to that party, interview or event you’re fearing. It’s good to build up gradually and do a few minutes at a time until you are then able to sit in that situation. I suggest doing this with someone you trust and who understands the condition. That person could be a family member or a therapist/support worker – you can get referred for help via your doctor if needed.
If it gets very intense, speak to your GP – perhaps with a friend or family member to support you – to see if you can get referred on to the right therapy for you, which can be a bit of trial and error. What works for one person won’t work for everyone. Some doctors recommend cognitive behavioural therapy, others talking therapies, and some may suggest medication. There are lots of anxiety books by former sufferers too. Learn about the condition, but bear in mind you may still have bad days.
It’s helpful to speak to trusted friends and family about how you’re feeling – particularly if you can’t leave the house. You may feel guilty for letting others down if you can’t attend social events, but it’s so important not to beat yourself up and to be kind to yourself. You have an illness and it’s OK to take some time for yourself to regroup.
Anxiety can be debilitating and cause a lot of emotions, so it’s important to work on your mindset daily. For me, trying meditation and positive affirmations has really helped to calm my mind. Social anxiety is hard because it impacts on other people, not just yourself, but the important thing to remember is that there are ways to manage it to make the experience less intense, and perhaps to stop it completely – you just need to find a method that works for you.