Social anxiety: a therapist’s guide

Our resident columnist, psychotherapist Jess Henley, PGDip, MA, offers top tips on how to stop social anxiety in its tracks this year
Photography: Alexander Popov/Unsplash

So, what is it? An overwhelming, deep-rooted fear of all types of social situations that’s more debilitating than just being shy. It can consume someone before, during and after an event. The Christmas and New Year period is particularly difficult, because there’s much more pressure to go out and mingle – so you might have found the last few months long.

How do I recognise it? Often in psychological and physical ways, such as a dread of group gatherings, wanting to curl up and hibernate when you’re the centre of attention, constant worry about what to talk about, what others may think, low self-esteem and fear of being boring. Plus, feeling sick, blushing, excessive sweating, shaking and a racing heartbeat.

Ways to tackle it Using these key tricks can noticeably soothe it so that most social situations become bearable. And, hopefully, in some cases, even fun.

Focus on controlling your breathing. When you’re feeling anxious, you tend to breathe high up in your chest. So bringing it into your abdomen and slowing it down can instantly start to reduce any anxiety by triggering a relaxation response in your body. Do this by imagining a spot that’s two inches below your belly button and a third of the way into your body. Take slow breaths that last at least eight seconds and breathe deeply into this spot. With each exhale, say the word ‘relax’ and picture any tension drifting from your body. You can practise this for a few minutes before you go to a social gathering – and remember to slow down your breath if you feel your anxiety levels rising during the event.

Look for a conversation crutch. If you’re really worried about having nothing to discuss with others when you arrive at the bash, spend the first five minutes taking in the venue and see if any of your surroundings particularly catch your eye – it might be a picture on the wall, a flower arrangement or an item of furniture. If your mind goes blank, this can be your conversation crutch. Talk about why you like it, or why you find it interesting, and see what the other person has to say. Keep breathing slowly and calmly while chatting. Don’t forget that other people often go blank, too, so they might be grateful to have something to focus on and talk about as well.

Try to challenge unhelpful thoughts and think of them in a positive light. Remember that thoughts are not facts, so question the ones that make you feel anxious by finding evidence that contradicts them. Make a list of the key things you’re worried about, and next to each one recall a time when you’ve successfully overcome each scenario. Seeing these examples – where you’ve succeeded before – can empower you to know that you can do it again.

If your thoughts are spiralling out of control and you feel excessively anxious or depressed, see your GP. Or contact SANEline, a mental health helpline, on 0300 304 7000.