In this post, I’ll be sharing my top tips for supporting someone when they’re feeling socially anxious, from the perspective of someone who has experienced social anxiety myself.
1. Avoid blame and shame
If the person is a friend or family member, avoid blaming and shaming them for what you may at first perceive as ‘keeping themselves to themselves’. They are not being intentionally anti-social; feelings of social anxiety can often prevent them from being social even though it may be something that they really want to partake in. I would suggest researching social anxiety so that you are more aware of the condition and its signs/triggers; this will help to put your friend at ease by increasing understanding, hence preventing conflict and ensuring your friend feels more supported.
If it’s not someone you are necessarily close to- a stranger or someone new to a group- be sure to make them feel welcome, but don’t overwhelm them. Ice breakers, speeches about yourself, and so forth can be hard if you experience social anxiety. The attention is all on you and that’s what we tend to wish to avoid. Be open to them participating in conversation, but let it be on their own terms.
Most importantly, please avoid statements such as ‘everyone gets nervous, you just have to do it’, as this can make them feel as though they are overreacting and could cause them to internally blame themselves. Creating a cycle of anxious feelings that could be tricky to break. This could also undo social progress made and deter them from entering social situations in the future.
2. Words of affirmation
I believe that true friendship is based on understanding. My close friends accept me for who I am, and are there to support me, lifting me up with little reminders of my capabilities and general words of affirmation when I’m feeling low. Check in with your friends. If you’re at a social gathering and are aware of them feeling socially anxious, stick with them. Try not to walk off to mingle too often, as this could cause them to feel uncomfortable and might make them less likely to be as willing to attend next time. Knowing that they are supported will really help, and will also reduce the need for ‘unavoidable situations’ from the get-go. Friends who are compassionate, aware, and willing to help are invaluable and worth their weight in gold.
3. Keep an open mind
Many people experience social anxiety, but this does not mean that everyone finds the same situations uncomfortable. For example, one person may find presentations to be hard, but also find that talking to strangers in a relaxed environment isn’t so bad. Equally, another person may experience the complete opposite. The difficulty people often find is that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ diagnosis for social anxiety, and this can lead to judgment and accusations of those who experience it. This poses a problem for people who feel socially anxious, as being judged can be a huge factor toward their feelings, and is often the reason behind them avoiding certain situations and opportunities. Keeping an open mind and accepting that everyone experiences different things is really helpful in being able to support those around you who experience social anxiety, as you aren’t confined to a certain image of what they must be.
4. Give them space
It’s common that social situations can often leave people feeling drained both mentally and physically, and needing time to recharge. Whilst you may want to frequently invite/involve friends who experience social anxiety so that they don’t feel left out, it’s entirely possible that they might need a bit longer in between things to recoup. It’s useful if you can recognise when they are feeling socially anxious, and also have a general idea how they deal with it and what you can do to help. As stated above, social anxiety is different for everyone, but here are some common symptoms to give you a general idea:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Stomach trouble and diarrhoea
- Inability to catch breath
- “Out-of-body” sensation
Some people might start feeling anxious immediately before an event, whereas others might spend weeks worrying about it. Afterward, some people may spend a lot of time and mental energy worrying about how they acted. This can be exhausting, and so knowing when to give people space can be really important.
5. Support them in seeking help
Self-care is personal and depends on what relaxes an individual. Self-help methods may not resolve anxiousness for everyone, nor will they work with immediate effect, but they can be massively helpful alongside other methods, such as CBT. If you know your friend/family member enjoys listening to self-help podcasts or attending support groups, maybe suggest that you join them. This shows your support and willingness to deepen your current understanding, and may make your friend feel more at ease and enhance the level of trust between you.