How To Calm Social Anxiety & Fears So They Don't Stop You From Making Friends
You get invited to something new in your life and, wham, social anxiety comes out. Suddenly you are overthinking everything, wondering if you really have to go, and maybe even wishing for an excuse to get out of it. You are filled with anxiety and terrified of what may happen. This fear may stop you from doing things you love, meeting new people, going to events, or living life outside of your house.
You know that you want to make new friends. Perhaps you just moved to a new place, but it feels so scary to meet new people. Or maybe your friends recently moved away. Maybe you really want to try new things other than what your friends are doing or to feel confident if you walked into a room of strangers by yourself. However, part of you is stuck in a fear that people may not like you or that people always leave--so why bother?
But what if...you found ways to calm your social anxiety and to feel confident going into new situations. You have a group of friends that you can call and text and are there for you no matter what. The group invites you out on Friday nights for dinners, and Sundays are for weekly recaps. They send you funny memes during the day or just check-in. Suddenly you have a place that you belong and feel connected to those around you.
Everyone deserves great friends. Let’s work with you on getting you over your anxiety and into meeting new great friends.
1: First Things First, Calming Social Anxiety Starts With Calming Skills
Part of going into any new situation is knowing ways to feel better and battle anxiety so it doesn’t overwhelm you. Before even thinking about trying new things, it is important to practice a few grounding skills for when you do venture out.
One particular skill I love is 4-7-8 breath which can be done before leaving your car or walking into a new place. When you get anxious or afraid, your breathing speeds up as your body prepares to fight, flight, or freeze. 4-7-8 breath works on getting your breathing back to calm, with having a longer exhale than inhale, thus convincing your body that you are safe.
Another great way to feel comfortable is to do 5-4-3-2-1 by naming 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you smell, and one thing you taste. This can be great to orient yourself in a new place or when anxiety feels overwhelming.
There are many other skills to work through in an anxious moment to help you feel better. In therapy, we can make a list of skills to manage your anxiety. You can keep the list with you to practice before social situations. We can also practice these in session so they become second nature when you need to use them.
2: The What-If Thoughts
Oftentimes, being afraid of meeting new people can be tied to low self-esteem and excessive worrying about what others will think of you.
These thoughts can look like….
“What if they don’t like me?”
“What if I say the wrong thing?”
Challenging the what-if thoughts is crucial. A great way to do that is to make a list of what the worst possible thing that could happen would be, the best possible thing to happen, and the most likely thing to happen. Remind yourself of this list as you go through your day.
Another way to conquer the what-if thoughts is to switch them around.
Instead of “What if they don’t like me?” turn it to “What if they do like me and I make new friends?”
Or “What if I say the wrong thing?” to “What if I say the right things and everyone laughs with me at my jokes?”
In therapy, we can explore what thoughts you have around met new people, and begin to speak to those thoughts and self-esteem challenges. We can make mantras to repeat every day to help you feel your best self and remember that you are awesome just the way you are and your only purpose in life is to be you. Working through these thoughts will decrease your anxiety and help you to feel more comfortable in social situations.
3: Making A Pyramid Of Fears (And Safety Planning Other Steps)
Once we have conquered finding ways to help you calm your social anxiety and look at the thoughts that contribute, we can begin to work on making a pyramid of fears or anxiety hierarchy.
If I was afraid of flying, my biggest fear would be riding on an airplane. The easiest place to start would be the lowest level of the pyramid with visualizing going to the airport. My next level would be to go to the airport and see planes take off. Then I would possibly visualize being on a plane, then doing a flight simulator ride, before eventually getting on a plane.
Anxiety works the same way. Your biggest fear would go at the top of the pyramid, such as going to a concert alone or joining a group all by yourself.
The lowest level of the pyramid would be the thing that gives you the smallest level of anxiety such as, grabbing coffee with an old friend and a new friend. The next level inspires a little more fear, such as texting a new friend to meet up. Another level could be doing a group meetup with one friend that you know. Finally, it would be at the top fear. There are many steps to the pyramid and each one gets a little bit harder but you’ll know you can do it. Each time you will feel more confident and less afraid.
Your next and final step is to put everything you’ve learned into use. To practice your new skills, check your thoughts, and begin to make your pyramid and say yes to random healthy and safe things.
Anxiety is not easy and neither is handling it, but hopefully, with these steps, you begin to. Anxiety thrives on negative reinforcement--essentially when we avoid something that scares us, we reinforce that it is scary and bad. Next time, our body wants to avoid it even more. Hopefully, through these steps you have found ways to help your body feel okay in intense situations, to check into your thoughts before they overwhelm you, and to map out easy ways to begin handling your anxiety versus throwing yourself in the deep end.
If you want to learn more about counseling and what counseling could do for you, check out our section on Girls, Women, and Ladies. To make an appointment, feel free to reach out to Willow Tree Healing Center at (757)296-8794.
Mary Willoughby Romm is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Virginia who provides online therapy for Willow Tree Healing Center. She enjoys transforming the lives of women, college students, kids, tweens/teens, and families. She is certified in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (ages 2-7) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.