How Introverts Can Combat Social Anxiety, According to a Therapist

An introvert journals about her social anxiety

If you have thoughts like, “What will they think of me?” or “How many times did I say something awkward?” you might have social anxiety. 

I see many clients who struggle with social anxiety. I also encounter many introverts in my practice, and, as an introvert myself, I understand the challenges that arise as we try to make sense of our anxiety. Thoughts of, “What will they think of me?” or “Does anyone like me?” or “How many times did I say something awkward?” may run through our mind before, during, and after social events. 

This anxiety can cause great discomfort, and it often becomes a barrier to building and sustaining true connection with others. However, not all introverts have social anxiety

While introversion is something you are born with, social anxiety — intense anxiety or the fear of being judged — is something you can address in several ways, and I’ll give some suggestions on how you can manage it in your day-to-day life.

Social Anxiety Can Interfere With Our Ability to Communicate Effectively

In Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown, she states, “We want to be a part of something, but we need it to be real — not conditional or fake or constantly up for negotiation.” As introverts, we gravitate toward meaningful conversation and stability in our social interactions, yet social anxiety can interfere with our ability to effectively and clearly communicate our thoughts. And when we are unable to communicate clearly, it can intensify our anxiety in social settings. As someone who deeply desires to be understood, I have often felt frustrated by my challenge to effectively communicate my thoughts in conversation. As a result, I have pulled away from others and prevented myself from building healthy relationships. 

Additionally, I have witnessed confusion surrounding shyness, introversion, and social anxiety. These terms are frequently used interchangeably, and this can be unintentionally harmful. Therefore, I want to take a moment to define social anxiety and introversion

What Is Social Anxiety?

Per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5, social anxiety is “marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.” While I can verify that social anxiety is more complex than this one statement, it is ultimately rooted in what is perceived as a threat to our emotional survival. It causes the individual to experience unpleasant psychological and physical reactions before, during, and after social events — all due to the fear of scrutiny.

What Is Introversion?

Introversion determines the level of energy we derive from evaluating the events that transpire in our day-to-day lives. Susan Cain said it well in her book, Quiet, when she stated, “Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them.” This differs from social anxiety in which our mind gravitates toward how others perceive us. Social anxiety causes significant distress whereas introversion requires us to occasionally redirect our energy so that we may recharge… alone.

The combination of introversion and social anxiety can feel like an impossible mountain to climb. It can make you feel confused, frustrated, and helpless. Below, I offer some practical solutions to help you combat social anxiety symptoms that cause distress.

4 Ways for Introverts to Combat Social Anxiety 

1.  Identify your negative core beliefs.

Many of us develop negative core beliefs about ourselves during childhood and adolescence. These beliefs can stem from our families of origin, childhood bullies, and other influential figures in our lives. I often see where these beliefs dictate our perception of the world, and many introverts struggle to rationalize the fear of scrutiny. Anxiety often does not feel logical, yet we can typically trace it back to these early experiences in life.

Some helpful ways to combat negative core beliefs is to journal about the belief and to identify the evidence that does — and does not — support it. Often, we find there is little to no evidence to support the worst things we believe about ourselves. Most frequently, these beliefs are messages from others that we’ve internalized.

For example, I commonly hear negative core beliefs that the individual is “bad,” that they are unworthy, or that they must strive for perfection to be loved and accepted. Many times, individuals can trace these messages back to what they witnessed — or what was told to them — in childhood. It is common for parents to inadvertently send these messages through the use of shaming statements such as, “Why would you do that?” or “Your actions are a reflection of me!”

If you are able to trace these beliefs to early childhood, take the time to write out what you wish the adults in your life had said to you as a child or teenager. For instance, if your core belief is that you are worthless, you might write that you are valued as you are. If you believe you are “bad,” you might write down the strengths you wish the adults in your life had noticed. If this feels too overwhelming to explore on your own, finding a therapist can be helpful.

2. Identify characteristics of “safe” people.

Many of us have been conditioned to seek unhealthy and enmeshed relationships, which leads to increased anxiety, dissatisfaction, and self-doubt. Much of this arises as the result of a society that loves labels. For example, introverts are often labeled as “too quiet” and extroverts are praised for their ability to speak, without even having to think (and overthink) first. 

But stereotypes can be harmful. Therefore, we have to identify the characteristics that lead to fulfilling, good, healthy relationships, where we are accepted as we are while also being pushed to grow. Examples of “safe” characteristics are honesty, self-accountability, kindness, and consideration for your feelings.

Often, we assume that others’ intentions are not in our best interest. In my work, I find that one of the best ways to combat this fear is to become a safe person for others. Many introverts are labeled as good listeners, for example, and this can foster safety for relationships to flourish. It can be helpful to identify and cultivate the characteristics that we want to experience in our relationships — and this allows us to develop confidence that others can be safe for us, as well. For instance, if I know I am capable of offering compassion and kindness in the midst of disagreement, I am going to be more confident that others will be able to extend compassion and kindness to me, as well. 

If you notice a pattern of seeking unhealthy relationships, try to explore the way your relationships in adulthood mirror the relationships you had with your parents. There is often a connection, and we unconsciously seek to heal childhood wounds through our relationships with other adults. Maybe you grew up with a mother who gave you the silent treatment when you did something wrong, and now you find yourself with a partner who runs from conflict. Again, this can feel overwhelming to explore on your own — finding a therapist to help you process your life experiences can be an excellent tool!

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3. Identify grounding techniques that work for you.

Grounding techniques — like meditation — are designed to help us achieve a sense of safety within the body. Social anxiety can create challenges with breathing, chest pain, sweaty palms, and a sense of dread. Exercises that I find helpful are square breathing and the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Square breathing is to inhale through the nose for four seconds, hold the inhale for four seconds, breathe out through the mouth for four seconds, and hold the exhale for four seconds. As we focus on our breath, our mind is no longer able to focus on the source of the anxiety. Deep breathing also activates the part of our brain that fights anxiety.

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique requires us to identify five things we can see (or would like to see), four things we can touch (or would like to touch), three things we can hear (or wish we could hear), two things we can smell (or wish we could smell), and one thing we can taste (or wish we could taste). Again, this exercise helps our mind to focus on something outside the circumstances that lead to the anxiety. 

While I often recommend these techniques for individuals experiencing distress, I find that grounding techniques can help us be in the present moment. For introverts, these techniques can help us when we are preoccupied with anxiety. 

4. Be kind to yourself.

As introverts, we tend to judge and scrutinize ourselves due to our focus on our inner world. If you are an introvert who also struggles with social anxiety, I hope you know that you are worthy. Social anxiety is complicated, and it is challenging to fight against it. While having social anxiety labeled by a mental health professional can be helpful, it can also cause fear, discomfort, and uncertainty about next steps. 

I so often witness people who become discouraged when change does not occur quickly. While this discouragement is understandable, I hope you know it’s okay to take time in your healing journey. Healing is not linear, and exploring our mental health concerns and personality types requires patience and kindness directed toward ourselves. 

If you decide to pursue therapy to address anxiety surrounding social situations, your therapist may have you reflect on your earliest memories of experiencing social anxiety. That way, they can help guide you in combating negative core beliefs as a means of gaining confidence

There Is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution

I want to emphasize that these suggestions are not the sole answer to dealing with social anxiety. Mental health is multifaceted, and personality types are perhaps even more so. Just know that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Sometimes my clients come to me believing that there is no hope for change. If you find yourself in the same position, I encourage you to create measurable goals. When we attempt to change too much at once, our brain becomes overwhelmed, and we are more likely to give up. But, by keeping small promises to ourselves, it helps us build confidence in our abilities. For example, you may decide to drink a glass of water every day (or several), take your psychiatric medication on a daily basis if you’ve previously experienced difficulty taking it consistently, or meditate regularly to help calm your mind. These are all tasks that contribute to your overall well-being — and it’s often easier to master them (whatever they may be for you) one at a time.

Is social anxiety holding you back?

Although social anxiety is not the same thing as introversion, many introverts experience this painful and isolating condition. The truth is you can beat social anxiety, and our partner Natasha Daniels can show you how. This means more relaxed conversations, more enjoyable work/school days, and more social invitations that you don’t immediately decline (unless you want to, of course!). Click here to check out her online class for kids and adults, How to Crush Social Anxiety.

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