While some people will have clinically diagnosable social anxiety, which is a very crippling and serious condition, it’s also true that almost all of us experience ‘some’ anxiety when we’re in social settings.
Social anxiety is what causes us to get the butterflies to go on stage to speak and it’s what makes us stay quiet in social settings because we’re afraid that what we have to say will cause us to get laughed at. It’s also what prevents us from approaching attractive people in bars and in the most severe cases; it may even lead to full blown panic attacks.
In fact, it’s fair to say that social anxiety is one of the things that most stands in our way and prevents many of us from achieving everything we’re capable of. Forget trying to get smarter, better looking or stronger: if you could only walk and talk with confidence and command the attention of any room, you would go really far in your love life and your career.
Fortunately though, social anxiety is something you can manage and treat. Whether you have an actual medical condition or you just aren’t as confident as you’d like to be, there are plenty of options available to help you gain the confidence you need to thrive in social settings.
Let’s start with something that you should probably avoid: which is medication.
Medication is often used to treat social anxiety and actually a number of different anxiety disorders. Generally, these medications will work by reducing the amount of activity in the brain by increasing quantities of the neurotransmitter ‘GABA’. GABA is the brain’s primary ‘inhibitory’ neurotransmitter and by increasing this, you can actually reduce activity throughout the brain and thereby quieten the internal monologue.
Many people will find that doing this results in them feeling much calmer and more relaxed when they are heading into social settings or other scenarios where they previously may have been prone to anxiety.
Unfortunately though, these methods are also flawed. Apart from the fact that many anxiolytics can be addictive and have unwanted side effects (including barbiturates and benzodiazepines), using medication to ‘slow’ your brain may actually make you less witty and engaging in conversation. Studies actually show us that charisma is linked to the ‘speed’ at which we think (1). Not only does this show us that it’s possible to avoid social anxiety while still allowing the brain to work at full throttle but it also shows us that slowing the brain may actually cause us to fair worse in a social setting.
Increasing GABA is actually the same way that alcohol works (and this is why many people will self-medicate for anxiety with alcohol). As you probably are aware, alcohol is not really the best way to make yourself wittier and more engaging – it’s more likely to just make you sound slow and the effect of anxiolytics may be similar. Apart from anything else, GABA makes you sleepy!
Medications then are to be avoided unless your condition is crippling or dangerous. In which case, medication may be the best choice while you aim to address the route of the issue.
There is an over-the-counter alternative to using drugs like benzodiazepines which is the natural derivative of GABA, phenibut. However, this comes with all the same concerns and can actually be addictive when used in the long term. You’re much better off avoiding these!
Instead of using drugs to cover up the symptoms of social anxiety, a better strategy is to address the root cause with a psychotherapeutic approach called ‘CBT’ or ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’. This is a method used by psychologists and therapists to try and help patients to address the causes of their anxiety and to change their thinking, behavior and beliefs to address the problem.
CBT works then by looking at what thoughts are leading to the anxiety or worsening it. You might find that you’re worrying about people laughing at you, or about it being ‘awkward’. This fear is then what’s causing you to produce neurotransmitters and hormones associated with fight or flight, which causes you to become worked up and ironically makes you more likely to be awkward when talking.
To identify the specific thoughts that are causing this reaction, a therapist will talk you through the use of ‘mindfulness meditation’ (a type of meditation where you focus on your own thoughts) or of simply journaling and writing down the thoughts as you remember them.
From there, the next step is to try and address those thoughts and change them using a process called ‘cognitive restructuring’. In essence, this means that you’ll be proving to yourself that those thoughts and ideas can’t be right.
One way to do this is with thought challenging – simply making the case in your mind that your beliefs are unfounded. You might remind yourself for instance that people are patient and that they’ll be forgiving if you stutter or say the wrong thing. More powerfully still, you might also tell yourself that it doesn’t matter what they think. After all, these people aren’t your friends and you never have to see them again!
One of the best strategies in CBT of all is something called ‘hypothesis testing’. Here, you simply test your fear and face it head on. For instance, you might go up on stage to give a talk and then purposefully not say anything and endure the awkwardness. While this might be excruciating, what you’ll find is that there are no serious repercussions – the worst case scenario really isn’t that bad! If you can do this a few times, you can eventually completely remove the fear and thus start speaking confidently in any situation.
Another way to try this is by heading into a store and striking up an awkward conversation with the checkout assistant. Do it somewhere where you don’t shop often and once again you’ll find that there is no negative outcome and you are in fact free to act however you want. The more relaxed you become, the easier and more compelling you’ll be in conversation.
You don’t always have to fail on purpose either – simply practicing being in these situations will help you to desensitize yourself to them and to give you more control of your bodily responses. Build your way up by starting small conversations (asking for directions) and eventually you can take on the scariest situations of all – trying your hand at stand-up comedy for instance!
These are actually techniques that are used by pickup artists to overcome their natural inclinations to be shy. Books like The Game recommend that these guys strike up conversations with strangers, call random numbers and do purposefully embarrassing things to the point that they become ‘socially bulletproof’. Interestingly, they then hypothesize that this lack of ‘fear’ of social situations helps to send a signal that they must be above the other people and that they must be alpha males.
Whatever you think about pickup artists, this is certainly an interesting approach and something that can be applied to anyone. Try practicing getting outside your comfort zone socially whoever you are and you’ll find it helps you to be more relaxed, calm and in command in any social setting.
And finally, remember that you can boost your confidence and reduce stress in other ways. Make certain that you keep your posture relaxed, that you breathe and that you talk slowly. Meanwhile, wearing clothes that make you feel comfortable-but-attractive and keeping your head up and chest out can all make you feel that little bit more in command and at ease in social settings.
Really though, it comes down to practice and a willingness to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. And if you need a little help, see a cognitive behavioral therapist.