Anxiety Face

The idea of overcoming social anxiety used to seem impossible. Anxiety flowed through my veins so consistently that I thought it was part of me.

I would drown in it. I was forever stuck in negative feedback loops fed by anxious thoughts, and I couldn’t think clearly until I escaped whatever awkward social situation I was in.

We’ve all been in situations like that, right? It sucks. Our social anxiety stops us from living in the moment and enjoying ourselves. If it gets triggered often, we starting choosing what to do and where to go based on our comfort levels. We play it safe, miss social opportunities and become boring because we desperately want to avoid feeling anxious.

So how do you overcome it? This article will show you how to be less anxious, with a simple exercise.

How I Became Less Anxious

After doing the following exercise for a couple of weeks I started to notice some changes. The anxiety was still there, but it didn’t overwhelm me anymore. Instead of seeing it as one giant, unsuppressable emotion, I found that I could actually zoom in on the individual thoughts that the emotion was made up of.

Once I could see each thought clearly it was easier to dismantle the social anxiety and overcome it.

I found that I gradually became more aware of my surroundings. I got out of my head and focused on what my eyes saw, my ears heard and my body felt… and it was glorious.

I learned how to feel a little bit anxious AND feel okay about it at the same time, and it made a huge difference.

The Science Of Overcoming Social Anxiety

We all have an autonomic nervous system (ANS) that regulates our body without our conscious input. It has 2 main divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).

Your SNS is responsible for freaking the fuck out to keep you out of danger while your PSNS restores calm and makes you less anxious. They run side-by-side all day long and they’re supposed to balance each other out.

This 89-second clip explains what they do. Watch it. It’ll make things a little clearer.

And this page gets science-y about it if you want more info.

So anyway, your SNS gets triggered by potential threats… but your brain can’t really tell the difference between external threats and your own negative thoughts. That’s why you feel anxious when you’re not in any physical danger. Let me give you an example.

Triggering Your SNS In Social Situations

Imagine yourself in this situation. You congratulate your classmate Charlie (who you don’t know very well) for getting the highest score on the math exam… but you accidentally sound a little sarcastic because you’re kind of unhappy that he beat you. He looks like he might have noticed your bitter tone.

“Crap, I bet Charlie thinks I’m a dick now.”

Your heart rate increases and your muscles tense because your SNS is activated. You notice a shortness of breath, sweating and anxious tingling throughout your body. Negative thoughts flood into your head and flare up your SNS even more until, voila, you’re stuck in a socially anxious thought loop.

“Did any of those people walking past hear me sounding like a dick?”

This is when your PSNS is supposed to show up and save the day. Once it knows that you’re not actually under attack, it overcomes social anxiety and restores balance.

The problem is that when you’ve got lots of negative thoughts snowballing together, it still feels like you’re under attack, so your PSNS doesn’t know that you’re safe and doesn’t calm you down.

The exercise below helps you snap yourself out of these negative thought loops. It activates your PSNS at will and teaches you how to be less anxious.

The Exercise That Makes You Less Anxious

The cool thing about this is that you don’t have to trust me to know it works. You can feel it working the first time you try it.

Just think back to a negative thought you had today and bring back the negative feelings.

Now write down how you felt and what you told yourself in your head. Use the present tense as if you’re feeling it right now, and use “I …” to form your sentences. 2-3 sentences should be enough.

For example: I feel stressed about writing my article… what if no one likes it? Am I a fraud? I’ve been procrastinating all day and now I feel like a useless piece of crap because I’m not going to have enough time to finish it today.”

This will give your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) something to freak out about just a little.

Now that you’ve fired up your SNS… ask yourself what changed in your body? What changed in your mind? Write down everything you notice. Use present tense language and start your thoughts with “My …” (Don’t use “I …” this time).

For example: My focus is in my head. My eyes are glazed over. There’s a lump in my throat. My heart is beating faster than normal. My gut is heavy and pulsing. My left thumb is rubbing my right forefinger. My shoulders are tense. My upper body is tingling.”

This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and make your anxiety response calm down. Keep looking for new things to notice. You might only catch 2 or 3 things the first time but you’ll get better at it the more you do it.

Overcome Social Anxiety By Building This Habit

Did you feel the difference that the exercise made? By simply using “My …” language it starts to feel like your social anxiety is separate from yourself. That’s the key to overcoming it.

That’s what I meant by learning how to feel anxious AND being okay with it at the same time… though you’ll also feel less anxious than you used to.

If overcoming social anxiety is one of your goals, I’d recommend trying this exercise once a day for the next 2-3 weeks, because doing it regularly builds the habit of activating your PSNS, like building a muscle.

You can also do it in the moment you catch yourself having a negative thought instead of recalling your thoughts and feelings later that day. It’s totally up to you.

Here’s another entry of mine as an example:

23 July

SNS (“I …”)

I can’t recall a negative thought from today. It was a great day. Actually that was one for a split second just now. I feel a slight pang of stress/worry. It’s like I expect myself to be perfect… and potentially missing a negative thought today feels like failure. And if I fail I feel like I’m not good enough.

PSNS (“My …”)

My stomach sank. My heart tightened up. My energy and motivation seem lower. My mood seems less positive, more miserable (but only slightly). My head is asking “What if I’m not doing it right? What if I don’t achieve my goals? What if I fail?”

Overcoming social anxiety benefits so many aspects of your life. You’ll find yourself saying yes to opportunities that would have scared the shit out of you in the past, because you’ll feel more comfortable and confident in stressful situations.

This exercise could be all it takes to make you less anxious… and it really doesn’t take long to write 50-100 words per day. So go ahead and try it out today, before you forget about it.

8 Thoughts to “How To Be Less Anxious: A Hack For Overcoming Social Anxiety”

  1. Recently I was feeling really depressed, worse than the minor depressions I have occasionally had for years. I also had lost all interest in sex. I was about to ask my doctor to recommend a therapist, but then I realized I should first check my medications.

    One of those medications was a beta blocker. Its listed side effects matched my situation exactly! I stopped it and felt better almost immediately.

    What do beta blockers block? They block the receptors for adrenaline, and are known to stop anxiety. They are used to block anxiety by people who need to perform in public. They partly block the “fight or flight” reaction.

    In my case, with the beta blocker gone, I could feel a tiny thread of added anxiety, but it was a good thing, driving out the horrible blackness of the depression. It also restored my desire for sex.

    I think anxiety is not so simple.

  2. Spot on man. I reckon everyone finds their own step to your ‘Mr Anxiety’. Mine is going for a bit of an afternoon garden
    When i feel that uncontrollable urge to dig a hole and live in it, a step back a few thoughts and find the seed. I picture me dressed up in overalls, a summer hat and a shovel (bill and ben the flower pot men mode), wonder over to that spot in my brain where the seed has sprouted, and dig it out. Ive been doing it for a while and its certainly helped, however recently the seeds have been hard to find so im back in a bit of a limbo. Did you get any advice on what to do if you cant find where the initial sense of anxiety comes from?

    1. Hey Bianca, I’m not sure that finding the seed and digging it out is quite the same thing, because trying to get rid of the anxiety ends up planting more seeds and giving it a stronger hold. I find it more useful to try to feel all of the anxiety fully, and even let it expand and take over because that’s when it seems to let go, rather than looking for the seed.

      Does that make sense?

      1. I can second this.
        Taking control of anxiety has a lot to do with learning how to meditate. A great way to think about that is to view your thoughts as cars and you’re simply sitting on a bench along the street.
        Each time you have a thought, you:
        1. Acknowledge its presence as an observer (this separates you from the thought just as using “MY” instead of “I” language does in the above post)
        2. Label the thought as useful or not useful
        3. Watch it pass

        As you do this, you will get better at viewing your thoughts more objectively and understanding that you are not your thoughts, that they are separate from you and can be managed.

        You do this for good and bad thoughts. There is no need to label them good or bad, rather, decide whether they are helpful or hurtful from your seat safe on the sidewalk.

        If you try to fight them, they will only strengthen their hold. This is a psychological phenomenon that we, as humans, are all guilty of.

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