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.
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).
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:
SNS (“I …”)
PSNS (“My …”)
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.