Overcoming social anxiety

Social anxiety is something that is experienced by many students at all levels of study. Read our tips to help you move forward.

If you experience social anxiety, the thought of engaging in day-to-day social activities with other people can make you feel overwhelmed and anxious. Added to this, because we can’t always tell by looking at someone if they are experiencing anxiety, you may believe that you are the only person who finds social situations difficult. This thought can in turn make you feel even worse. Some people have also found that the circumstances created by Coronavirus have exacerbated their anxiety.

However, there are ways in which we can manage and overcome social anxiety. In this section we’ll look at some ways in which you can address social anxiety during this academic year.

Eight tips for overcoming social anxiety

1. Get to know your social anxiety

Although you might feel very familiar with your social anxiety, it might be helpful to try to think in a bit more detail about how it starts and progresses. Anxiety is often building long before we notice it. Paying attention to this process can help you better understand and take control of it. It might be useful to think about what particularly triggers it.

  • What is happening when you begin to feel anxious? Who is there? What are you doing or thinking about doing?
  • When it is triggered what thoughts start to go through your mind and how do these thoughts make you feel?
  • When the anxious feeling comes, can you notice what happens in your body and write this down.
  • Finally when the mind and body react, what does this make you want to do?

You might not be able to notice this when social anxiety is actually happening, so sometimes it is easiest to think about a recent time in the past that it happened.

2. Are your usual responses helping you?

Once you understand your social anxiety better, it can be helpful to think about what your social anxiety leads you to do, that might not be helping you in the long term. These are sometimes called “safety behaviours” - the things we do to make it all feel a bit more bearable in the moment.

For example:

  • when you notice the feeling of anxiety you decide to avoid the situation that is causing it.
  • You might try not to look at other people because you are worried they might be staring at you and this will make you feel worse (this one can be tricky when we need to log onto a video call).

Whilst these often make us feel a bit better in the short term, they don’t help us in the long term. When we avoid things, it often leads us to feeling annoyed with ourselves or feeling guilty about what we haven’t done. We also miss opportunities to engage in things that are good for us.

Identifying behaviours that may make you feel less anxious in the moment, but make things worse over time, can be an important step towards taking control of them and changing them. For example, if you avoid going to lectures, because you’re worried your lecturer may ask you a question, then you miss out on learning and potentially enjoying your subject and may then become worried about your academic progress. Whereas if you can make it into the lecture, you can start to take back control from the anxiety.

3. Take small steps

Tackling our social anxiety can mean that we may feel more anxiety as we approach things that we might have avoided before.

It can help to take small steps when trying new strategies. Think about trying something first that feels possible and positive. Once you have achieved one small step you can move on to the next (and maybe stretch just a little bit further).

During coronavirus, we have been using video calls frequently and some of your teaching may have been delivered this way. If you have avoided these sessions, for example, could you log into the call but leave your video camera off as your first step? If you have been attending but haven’t felt able to speak in discussions, could you put a comment in the chat box?

4. Look after your body

It might be helpful to think about how to manage the effect anxiety has on your body. When we are anxious, the body has an automatic reaction, which is designed to protect us from physical harm. But when there is no physical threat, it can get in our way and make things feel harder. The reaction in our body is automatic: we can't stop it happening and it can be hard to switch it off, but we can learn to manage it and reduce its impact.

Breathing exercises can help to reduce the physical impact. Relaxation techniques which target the muscles in our body may also help to reduce physical tension. The mind and the body are connected, so if we can calm the body down the mind usually follows.

Try this breathing exercise for stress and anxiety

5. Talk to those around you

Social anxiety may be a new experience for you, or you may have had it for a while. Either way, it can be helpful to speak to people that you trust to let them know how you’re feeling. They might not have all the answers, but they can support and encourage you as you take your small steps. Everyone has been impacted in some way by Coronavirus and they might have something that they need your support with too.

6. Be kind to yourself and note your successes

Overcoming social anxiety is possible but it can take time and won’t always happen easily. If something doesn’t go to plan, try not to criticise yourself. Try to think about the courage it took to even think about giving it a go. Every step you take is important, however small. If you manage to achieve a small step, take time to congratulate yourself.

7. Keep trying

If something doesn’t go to plan or you don’t manage to do it, try to think about what you can learn from that for next time. When we are making any changes, it is normal that not everythings works as well as we hope. These moments are not failure, they are part of the process of change. Don’t give up. Think about why you want to overcome this – it can help to write this down somewhere to remind you when you need it.

8. Use support

If social anxiety is getting in the way of your studies or your enjoyment of being a student, use the support available at your university or institution, or you may benefit from talking to your GP.