Anxiety about social situations lies on a spectrum. Even if you’re not suffering from a pervasive anxiety disorder, you’ve probably experienced shyness or feelings of not wanting to stand out before. That’s what I’m talking about here, the irritating nervousness that sometimes shows up in public places when our bodies sense that we are out on a limb. It’s usually accompanied by short breath, body heat and repetitive use of the word, “Um” – or a similar tick. You might get nervous due to rational or irrational thoughts like you’re ill-prepared for what you’re doing, or that you don’t offer as much compared with your peers. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll be misunderstood, or that you can’t find words at all.
A variety of root causes exist for experiencing social anxiety. And it happens to a lot of people. Anxietycenter.com reports that a whopping 30% of North Americans suffer from anxiety unwellness issues.
Mild social anxiety gets worse when we suspect the symptoms are visible to people around us. Controlling the first visible symptoms of nervousness can stop them from snowballing. Here are three quick techniques to help you take back control when social anxiety highjacks your nervous system. I’m not saying these will solve the root cause, but they can help minimize the symptoms.
Pretend you’re related.
What this does is trigger a relaxed stance that makes you appear more approachable and enables you to reach out in conversation. Think about the ways you engage with your family. Even if you’re not wild about your uncle’s football team, you generally think to ask him about it or something else you know he cares about when you see him. A sort of relaxed conscientiousness blankets a group of relatives at family holiday meals. Generally, we are at ease with our family. We know their faults and give them the benefit of the doubt. We’re more forgiving of mistakes. We take small chances at conversating in our own skin. We offer opinions, crack jokes, and use our real belly laugh. In non-verbal ways, we treat them like we care about them, despite sometimes vast personality differences.
If this describes your family relationship, then you can use familial visualization to recreate feelings of belonging that will short circuit your nervous responses and stop those distracting ticks before they appear. This is the easiest of the three tricks to implement because you already know deeply the feeling of connection with your family. Recreate the feeling by imagining unfamiliar people as your cousins, sisters, brothers, and parents. Practice talking to service workers in this way and you’ll see their instant gratitude. Try it when you greet a new coworker at your office or while waiting in line for the restroom. Once you see the instant positive impact this technique has on people who have less agency over you, using it when you’re with those who have more agency will seem like a no-brainer.
Pretend you’re someone else.
For work, I often go to Chamber of Commerce luncheons and industry mixers where small talk is expected and encouraged. Years ago, I used to leave networking events frustrated with myself because I paid out of pocket for the opportunity to make relationships, but made none, because I didn’t talk to anyone. Instead, I let fear take over. I was afraid to interrupt. I was afraid of being perceived as pushy. And I was afraid of boring other guests.
Tired of missing out and stressing out, I read Jeanne Martinet’s, The Art of Mingling. In the book, Martinet suggests the “Lucky Star” tactic, which basically means to pretend to be someone else. And it truly worked for me in the networking setting.
Martinet describes the Lucky Star approach as a survival fantasy designed to get you to take the first step. If you’re at a social gathering or public event, and the annoying rapid heartbeat starts up like a lawnmower in your chest, cut off power by imagining that you are someone else who, in your opinion, has the chops to handle the moment you’re in. The brain reacts faster with this personification technique than if you tried to recall and emulate each individual trait. A quick and concentrated visualization of a role model of your choice, and suddenly you’re walking like this person, holding your hands like this person, and in a sense, thinking like this person.
I chose Jimmy Fallon as my role model because he’s funny, welcoming, and a great conversationalist. After using the Lucky Star tactic for about a year at business events, I built enough confidence to forget about Jimmy and started trusting my ability.
Don’t wait until you need this trick to try it. Practice ahead of time so you’re prepared to get the best result when it matters. Pick one or two personalities you admire, and spend time studying them. I watched a lot of Jimmy Fallon on late night TV (before kids) so I was familiar with his mannerisms.
First, try the technique on a small group of close friends. Think about your role models and begin socializing in their spirit. Practice conversation openers, questions, responses, and observations. Practicing when you’re comfortable will help you think about this trick when your brain clouds up in terror. Hello, Company Speech. This survival fantasy probably seems funny, but don’t laugh because it works! (and no one has to know what you’re doing to pull off your confidence.)Social anxiety can strike any personality type, not just those labeled as introverts. #socialanxiety #publicspeaking #selfconfidence Click To Tweet
Focus on others.
Anxiety thrives in heightened levels of self-focused attention. It can be hard to think about others when you’re fighting strong feelings of fear and nervousness. That’s why this trick might take the most training, but it offers the biggest reward.
Recent research suggests helping other people regulate their emotions helps us regulate our own emotions. One study provided an environment for depressed patients to empathize, share stressful experiences and offer emotional encouragement to each other. Participants learned to spot possible thought distortions, suggest new perspectives and grant acceptance. Study results included overall improvement in mood and happiness for these people.
In a nervous moment, helping others feel more relaxed and welcome helps you feel the same immediately. And as you work to support other people in their fight against social anxiety, you are practicing from afar on your own self-regulation over the long haul.
Making “Others Focus” an ongoing lifestyle provides the most impact because the benefits compound with time. In specific events and environments where you experience strong self-doubt, train yourself to scan the room for someone you can help. Is there someone else standing alone? Is there someone not participating in the conversation? Say something inviting. Ask their opinion. Smile (which is known to be the easiest way to show welcome.) You can prepare a few conversation openers ahead of time.
Make focusing on others a lifestyle. Find ways to help people feel comfortable and confident in themselves. Surprising others with kindness. Use positive words in your vocabulary and minimize negative words. Give genuine compliments freely and criticize less. Train your eyes to notice people and make eye contact. Call people by name. If focusing on others is scary in the beginning, use the first two visualization techniques to help you while you gain confidence.
These three state-altering techniques may not fix the root cause of your social anxiety. But they can minimize obvious signs of nervousness, stop them from snowballing, and show you a glimpse of how life could feel if involuntary nerves weren’t holding you back. That alone is a start to squashing nervous anxiety for good.
Audrey Ryan is a freelance business writer and former sponsorship strategist for Global Spectrum and Legends Sales and Marketing. She has a BA in Public Relations from Texas Tech University. Find her at AudreyLeeRyan.com