“We need each other, deeper than anyone ever dares to admit even to themselves. I think it is a genetic imperative that we huddle together and hold on to each other.” ~Patch Adams
A few years ago, I was invited to a work event. When I received the invitation a few months before, the idea seemed fun—a friendly gathering with colleagues, filled with vibrant conversations and laughter, enabling me to create human connections in the workplace.
As the day approached, a familiar knot tightened in my stomach, I couldn’t breathe deeply, and an overwhelming sense of unease took hold. I was caught in the hand of social anxiety.
Close to the event, the mere thought of attending sent my mind spiralling into millions of anxious thoughts and self-doubt. The fear of being judged, saying something embarrassing, or feeling awkward became all-consuming. Every scenario played out in my mind, each one more terrifying than the last. My mind went to “making up excuses” mode: from getting sick to imagining the event would be boring—anything to cancel.
As the day of the event arrived, the intensity of my anxiety escalated. The butterflies in my stomach intensified, my heart raced, and I battled against the urge to retreat into the safety of my home and decline the invitation.
During the event itself, I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster. Every interaction became a high-stakes performance. My mind raced, searching for the right words, the funny words, the smart words, analyzing every gesture and facial expression.
My ability to express myself authentically was numbed by a fear of judgment and rejection. I felt like an outsider, trapped in a room filled with people who seemed to effortlessly navigate social situations, which felt utterly foreign to me. This masking left me mentally exhausted and emotionally drained.
After the event, a wave of relief washed over me as I finally escaped the social arena. I retreated back home, alone, to my safe haven. Unfortunately, my mind was not done racing, as it replayed every conversation and interaction. Self-doubt and self-criticism crept back in, overshadowing any moments of genuine connection or enjoyment I may have experienced.
Luckily, my story doesn’t end there. This is not me today. I’ve learned to regain control over my inner state and find genuine enjoyment in social interactions with others (even at work). I am also very clear on which social interactions I actually want to join and which are not for me, and I am connected enough to my body that I can choose to say no to fun events on days I need to rest.
It was through my journey of self-discovery and exploration with the approaches I now coach with, teach, and live by—neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques, yoga, and energy healing—that I began to accept, explore, and then transcend my social (and general) anxiety. Of course, there are still days I have to work harder on it, but overall, I feel in control of my state of being.
A therapist once gave me this definition of anxiety, which I love and keep using in my life and coaching:
Anxiety is your level of perceived stress or “danger” over your perceived ability to handle that situation.
When you perceive a situation as dangerous or stressful and you don’t believe you can handle it, your anxiety will be high and your nervous system in fight-or-flight mode…. potentially chronically.
Therefore, navigating social anxiety is about lowering your level of perceived stress and strengthening your confidence in your ability to handle life and social interactions, however nourishing or awkward they might be.
Here are the most important insights I’ve formed, and some practical techniques rooted in NLP and mindfulness that have helped me navigate social anxiety.
1. Practice self-awareness.
The first step in overcoming social anxiety is developing self-awareness. Take time to reflect on the situations that trigger your anxiety. Is it speaking in public, meeting new people, or being at work or in general? Or being the center of attention? By clearly identifying these triggers and their contexts, you can begin to understand the underlying thought patterns and beliefs that contribute to your anxiety.
Practice somatic awareness: Where do you feel those sensations in your body? What colors are they and what texture do they have, if any? Are they warm or cold, stuck or moving? Take a deep breath and allow those feeling to be felt and flow, without judging them.
Be compassionate with yourself, with your emotions, with the different parts showing up in those moments. Overcoming social anxiety takes time, compassion, and the willingness to change!
2. Get curious about your habitual thinking patterns and limiting beliefs.
There are underlying beliefs and habitual thinking patterns underneath the fear of being around people. Ask yourself:
• What about being around others makes you anxious? Is it a fear of judgment or rejection?
• Are you imagining the worst that could happen?
• What beliefs are creating this internal response?
• What do you think it would it say about you if you could not form a good connection with others during interactions?
• Do you trust others?
• Do you trust yourself to be able to handle the situation and whatever comes up? If not, what limiting beliefs underly your mistrust?
When you recognize that your fear stems from untrue beliefs, it reduces the perceived danger of the social interaction and increases your perceived ability to handle it.
3. Reframe unhelpful self-talk.
Unhelpful self-talk can be a relentless companion for individuals with social anxiety. NLP encourages us to challenge and reframe these negative thoughts and limiting beliefs into more empowering ones.
For instance, instead of thinking, “Everyone will judge me,” reframe it as, “People are just people, looking for real connection just like me.”
Instead of imagining the worst that could happen, see the interaction’s potential: an opportunity for fun, learning, and connection.
Transcend your internal dialogue with outward curiosity: What am I interested in learning from this or that person?
After a social interaction, instead of ruminating about the potential silliness of the things you said or did not say, and how people might have judged you, release the need to be validated by others. And celebrate that you put yourself out there and the moments when you were present and had fun. Replace your inner critic with your inner cheerleader, your inner best friend.
The next suggestions are approaches to learn to master your state of being and therefore increase your perceived ability to handle the social interactions.
4. Use mindful awareness and breathing techniques.
During the social event or interaction, if you feel triggered or overwhelmed, stay tuned in to your body, your breath. If you need a short break, take the time to recharge alone for a few minutes (in an outdoor area, on a patio, maybe in the restroom…). Take a few deep breaths. Remember your reframes, set an intention for joy and connection, remember people are just people, and go back in there!
5. Access and develop your self-confidence.
NLP utilizes the concept of anchoring to associate a specific physical or mental state with confidence and calmness.
Identify a moment when you felt truly confident and at ease. Relive that experience vividly in your mind and body, focusing on the positive emotions and sensations associated with it. Amplify that state by adding colors, sound, and smells to the movie you are creating in your mind. Then, create an anchor, such as touching your thumb and index finger together, to trigger those feelings whenever you need them before or during the social event.
6. Try mental rehearsal visualization.
This is a powerful tool in NLP that allows us to mentally rehearse social situations and build confidence. Imagine yourself engaging in a social event with ease, grace, and enjoyment. Visualize positive interactions, with you feeling relaxed and radiating confidence. By repeatedly practicing this visualization exercise, you can train your mind to associate social situations with positive outcomes.
7. Adopt a powerful body language.
Our body language communicates more than words ever can. In social situations, pay attention to your posture, breathing, and facial expressions. Stand tall, maintain relaxed breathing, and make eye contact. By adopting a powerful physiology, you not only project confidence to others but also influence your own state of mind.
8. Gradually increase your exposure to social situations.
While it may be tempting to avoid social situations altogether, facing your fears is crucial for overcoming social anxiety and living a full life. You want to allow yourself to enjoy the social interactions that you actually deeply want to be part of.
Gradually expose yourself to increasingly challenging social scenarios. Start with small steps, such as striking up conversations with strangers or attending social gatherings with trusted friends. As you accumulate positive experiences, your confidence will naturally grow.
9. Be mindful of your language patterns.
NLP emphasizes the importance of using language patterns that establish rapport and foster positive connections. Practice active listening, ask open-ended questions, and show genuine interest in others. By focusing on the needs and perspectives of those around you, you shift your attention away from your own anxiety and create a supportive social environment.
10. Nourish your nervous system.
Remember that anxiety in the body is created by your thought patterns and beliefs, which are creating a chronic fight-and-flight mode within your nervous system. It is paramount that you regulate your nervous system with activities that nourish it on a daily basis: yoga, nature, walks, sleep, nourishing food… Make this a priority if it’s not already. This will make a huge difference in your life and how you manage your perceived stress and, therefore, your anxiety.
Even the most deeply introverted personalities need social interaction. We are humans. We need others; we need connection to live wholesomely. It is a basis for our well-being and happiness, so it’s important to learn to transcend your social anxiety and balance your need for solitude with social connection.
This might be hard to do on your own, and that’s okay. You can always find a therapist or coach to support you in your journey to freedom from your limiting beliefs and mind patterns.
Take a deep breath, implement these strategies, be kind to yourself, and get out there!