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How I Overcame Social Anxiety (and You Can Too)

Updated on August 1, 2017

Social anxiety is a debilitating condition which makes people isolate themselves and, in severe cases, even develop depression. This article is designed to help you on the journey to recovery that I’ve been on myself.

For a long time, I didn’t understand my condition. I thought I was just shy. I would avoid most people, feel embarrassed to talk to people, had a low self-esteem, and feel constantly judged.

A couple of years ago I developed panic disorder, which exacerbated my social fears. But it also made me learn more about anxiety disorders and realise that there was help available. Since then, I have cured myself of panic disorder and the thought of interacting with people doesn’t paralyse me anymore.

I treated my social anxiety like a phobia by gradually exposing myself to more and more social interaction.This article will also teach you to challenge deeply-rooted beliefs about yourself and your social interactions and worry coping techniques.

Challenging Negative Beliefs

You are probably holding some deeply-rooted beliefs about yourself and about your social interactions. For example, you may think:

“People constantly judge me.”
“I can’t get better in social situations, it’s just who I am.”
“I am worthless.”

The first step will be challenging those beliefs. You will be considering evidence for and against each of these beliefs to check if they are true. For this exercise, grab pen and paper to help you think clearer.

1. The Belief That You’re Constantly Judged by Other People

Rate on a scale from 0%-100% how much this belief applies to you. Look at the following questions to help you determine evidence for and against the belief.

Evidence for:

  • What makes you think that you are constantly judged by people?
  • What’s the evidence for your belief?
  • Is the evidence for your beliefs good/solid/reliable?
  • Is there another way the evidence for your beliefs could be viewed?

Evidence against:

  • Do you constantly judge people? Are you able to, for example, remember that someone blushed yesterday? A week ago? A month ago?
  • Is it possible that you’re focused on your flaws more than others?
  • What can you remember better: your own mistakes or others’ mistakes? Do you think this is also true of other people?
  • What if your friend had this belief? What would your advice be?

You can also test this belief by having an honest conversation with your friend. Does he or she remember any of your mistakes you’ve made in the past? Is he or she more focused on your weaknesses or strengths?

After having considered the evidence, rate again how strongly you believe that other people constantly judge you. Any decrease is a step in the right direction.

Keep doing this exercise until you rate very low for this belief (about 0-20%).

2. The Belief That You Can’t Get Better at Social Situations

Rate on a scale from 0% to 100% how much this belief applies to you.

Then, list all the evidence for and against.

Evidence for:

  • What makes you think that you can’t get better at interacting with people?
  • What’s the evidence for your belief?
  • Is the evidence for your beliefs good/solid/reliable?
  • Is there another way the evidence for your beliefs could be viewed?

Evidence against:

  • Can you think of a situation you had a satisfying conversation with someone? Would that be possible if you were completely unable to get better?
  • Do you have trouble interacting with the people that are closest to you? Would that be possible if you couldn’t ever improve?
  • Is it possible that it’s the anxiety that causes you trouble in social situations? If the anxiety disappeared, would you be better at handling social situations?
  • Can you think of a social situation in which you weren’t anxious? If that’s so, do you think it’s possible to control your anxiety and eventually get better?

Rate again how much the belief applies to you now. If there’s any decrease, congratulations! Keep working on it until it’s very low (0-20%).

3. The Belief That You’re Worthless

Rate from 0% to 100% how much this belief applies to you. Then, consider all evidence for and against.

Evidence for:

  • What makes you think that you are worthless?
  • What’s the evidence for your belief?
  • Is the evidence for your beliefs good/solid/reliable?
  • Is there another way the evidence for your beliefs could be viewed?

Evidence against:

  • Do you consider any person to be worthless? Isn’t every person valuable and unique?
  • List all your successes and strong points.
  • Is it possible that your judgement is skewed?
  • What advice would you give to a friend who thought he or she was worthless?
  • What strong points do others see in you?

You may also ask a close person what he or she likes about you.

Now, rate how much the belief applies to you. Keep working on it until it’s very low (0-20%)

Postponing Worries

Anxiety sufferers worry excessively. In social anxiety disorder, worrying can impair your ability to perform well.

What is a worry? It consists of two step:

  1. A negative thought pops into your mind.
  2. You dwell on the thought of long periods of time.

For example, the initial negative thought may look like this: “And what if I make a fool out of myself at the meeting?”

And then the dwelling part: “If I make a fool out of myself, I will lose the company’s client and my job. My kids and I will end up on the street and we’ll have no help from anywhere.”

You can’t control step 1. Minds process a thousand pieces of information daily. Anything can pop in. However, you can control the dwelling part to prevent the spiralling out of control of the initial thought.

To limit dwelling on negative thoughts, you can use a technique called postponement. Instead of engaging with the initial thought or suppressing it, you can simply choose not to pay attention to it at the moment.

Take the following steps for successful worry postponement:

  1. The initial negative thought pops up. Acknowledge its presence and accept it.
  2. Jot the thought down in your notebook or on your phone.
  3. Let go of the thought and shift your attention to the task at hand. Remember to be accepting of the thought. You may say to yourself: “It’s OK to have that thought and I’m choosing not to engage with it at the moment.”
  4. Designate your thinking time. Set a time, length of time and place (ideally, it should be the same every day). During your thinking time, go through the list of the worries collected during the day. Cross out those that don’t bother you anymore. Then, decide which of the rest of the worries are solvable and which can’t be solved. For example, “I can’t pay off my car on time” is solvable whereas “What if I have a heart attack?” is not. Use problem-solving to tackle the first kind of worries and helpful thinking for the second. Here you can find a detailed guide to both methods.

Mindfulness

Simply put, mindfulness is bringing your attention to the present moment. It is a great relaxation technique and it will help you become better at postponement. You can use mindfulness for relaxation when implementing your exposure therapy plan (more about it in a moment).

I will discuss two mindfulness-based techniques – mundane task focusing and meditation.

When you are performing daily chores, your mind tends to wander off. During mundane task focusing you will be bringing it back to the present moment by concentrating on sensory experiences (touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell). Choose an activity (doing the dishes, hovering, going for walks, doing the laundry) and practice mundane task focusing daily when performing this activity.

Remember that your mind will wander off from the present. When it happens, bring it gently back to the present moment. It doesn’t matter if you’ll have to do it five times or fifty.

Meditation can be done the following way:

  1. Find a quiet place. Adopt a relax and alert posture.
  2. Spend up to 1 minute, registering all your sensations and feelings in a non-judgemental way.
  3. Spend 1-2 minutes focusing your attention on the breath. If your mind wanders off, gently bring it back again.
  4. Spend 1-2 minutes focusing your attention on your whole body. If your mind wanders off, bring it gently back to your body.

As you become more and more skilled at meditation, you can increase the time in steps 3 and 4. Aim to do both mundane task focusing and meditation daily.

Mindfulness is key to becoming less anxious
Mindfulness is key to becoming less anxious

Exposure Therapy

Social anxiety is a kind of phobia. It makes you avoid social situations for fear of humiliation or failure. Building up avoidance patterns is unhelpful and can make you organize your life around the social anxiety.

Facing the fear head-on is the only way to tackle a phobia. You should develop your personal plan for facing the fear of social situations. It should be broken down into small, manageable steps.

Remember that tackling a phobia takes time – don’t be frustrated if you get stuck. Maybe you need to revise your plan and take a smaller step? Practicing mindfulness will help you feel more at ease.

As everyone’s social life is different, it’s impossible to give a one-size-fits-all plan. Here is an example of how it could look like. Use it as a template or develop a completely different plan.

My Exposure Plan:

  1. Imagine talking to a friendly person.
  2. Talk to a close friend. Record all positive emotions.
  3. Answer a question on an online forum.
  4. Talk to someone you know (but isn’t very close to you) online.
  5. Talk to someone you know (but who isn’t very close to you) in real life.
  6. Arrange a meeting with your close friend and one stranger. Try to get to know the stranger.
  7. Go to a social get-together with a close friend. Try to get to know one person.
  8. Go to a social get-together alone and try to get to know one person.
  9. Go to a social get-together alone and join a group of people you know but not very well. Try to make a contribution to the conversation.
  10. Organize a get-together for two of your new friends. Go out eating or to the cinema, or whatever you feel comfortable with.
  11. Take up volunteering.

When you’ve got your plan, set a time frame for implementing it. For instance, do one item per week, let’s say on a Saturday. Sometimes you’ll need to modify your plan (you can’t go to a get-together if there’s none this day!).


Reward yourself after completing each step. It may be eating something you enjoy, listening to your favourite music, or watching your favourite film. In this way, you’ll reinforce your newly-developed helpful habits. Over time, your anxiety will diminish.

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