How to overcome social anxiety

Train yourself to feel more comfortable

Does the thought of public speaking make your blood run cold? How about making small talk at a work function, dating, meeting new people, using public bathrooms, eating in front of others, or working out among the ultra-toned posse at the gym? If not, you’re in the minority. In a series of studies by American psychologist Philip Zimbardo, 40 per cent of people described themselves as chronically shy and most others admitted feeling shy in certain situations. Only five per cent claimed to never feel bashful at all.

However, for some of us, feelings of shyness occur so frequently or intensely that we have difficulty functioning and are unable to achieve important life goals. At this level, mental health professionals call it “social phobia” or “social anxiety disorder”, and figures show around one in 10 Australians will suffer from social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.


Social anxiety disorder has a variety of causes, including genetics and negative life experiences. According to Dr Judy Hyde, director of the psychology clinic at the University of Sydney, these experiences include “criticism during childhood from parents, teachers, other authority figures, or peers, or overprotection by parents, who inadvertently give the message to the child that the world is a negatively evaluating place”.

These factors all contribute to anxious mental and physical reactions to perceived threatening social situations. Physically you may shake, blush, speak less clearly or sweat, which you may fear will be obvious to others, compounding the problem. Or you may have less visible symptoms such as a racing pulse, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. Mental reactions include a fear of looking foolish, weak or boring, and putting pressure on yourself to be liked by everyone, hide your anxiety and always be interesting and entertaining. These stressors can also increase our sensitivity to perceived criticism and inhibit our ability to cope.

With all these negative thoughts and feelings churning through you, a common coping mechanism is avoidance. This can simply be declining party invitations or tolerating social situations for only a short time, or can be more subtle measures such as drinking a couple of glasses of wine at a dinner party to relax, avoiding eye contact, wearing extra makeup or sunglasses as armour, or asking others questions to avoid talking about yourself.

Unfortunately, avoidance often simply perpetuates social anxiety. But the good news is there are ways to train yourself to feel more comfortable in social situations. Here’s how:


Clinical psychologist Nada Asceric recommends watching out for negative thoughts as the first step. “People with low self-esteem readily accept criticism by others, but find it difficult to accept praise,” she says. “Correcting this imbalance is an important step in being able to see ourselves in a more realistic light.” Learn to challenge your assumptions about yourself and others. Do you really know what others think of you? Are your imagined worst-case scenarios really all that likely to eventuate? Would the consequences really be terrible? Chances are, the answers aren’t as bad as you fear.

When you catch yourself making negative assumptions, replace them with more realistic expectations. Asceric says, “Mindfulness training teaches us to focus on the here and now, and thus can interrupt the process of negative thinking.”

Positive affirmations can also help. “Statements such as ‘I can cope with this’ or ‘I will be okay’ have been found to activate the self-empathy centre of the brain and can reduce tension and anxiety,” she adds.


Think of the most confident people you know, even characters in TV shows or movies. How do they handle themselves in social situations? What do they say? How do they act? Do they use some stock phrases to smoothly manoeuvre conversations to topics they enjoy?

Since shyness may be partly caused by observing and imitating other shy people around you, reverse this trend by learning from experts in self-assurance. Seek out those who have overcome their fears. Asceric recommends seeking out websites and self-help books to educate yourself about shyness and how others have overcome it. “They do help according to research,” she says.

There are plenty of socially anxious people who’ve gone on to achieve great things. Kim Basinger, Barbra Streisand and Australia’s Garry McDonald, Susie O’Neill and Rebecca Gibney have all shone in their fields as shy individuals. You can, too.


For some cases of social anxiety, medication or seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist may help. If you feel your fears and worries are getting in the way of enjoying life to the fullest, consider speaking with a professional.

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