How to Beat Social Anxiety

Real Simple readers share their tried-and-true tips for dealing with six of the most common anxiety-inducing situations, then psychologists and communications coaches weigh in with more advice.

  • Liz Welch

Giving a Speech

A Reader Suggests:
Daisy Cortez*, 39, a marketing executive in Miami finds someone in the audience to focus on. “In the first week of a new job, my boss asked me to make a speech, which immediately made me nervous,” she says. “To make matters worse, I’ve been a terrible blusher my whole life. I’ve tried tricks, like pretending I’m diving into a pool of cold water or visualizing my blood draining down to my toes, but neither has helped. Then I realized that I rarely blush in front of friends. Before my speech, I chatted with a woman who was very friendly. As I made my way to the podium, I was nervous, but then I spotted this woman in the audience and she smiled, which calmed me down instantly. At that moment, I realized I was speaking to kind people who wanted me to succeed.”



Experts Add:
  • Couple the first line of your speech with some kind of physical gesture. “Gesture toward the person who introduced you or sweep an arm out to the audience,” says corporate coach Joyce Newman, founder of the Newman Group, an executive media-training company in New York City. “It will help channel your nervous energy.”
  • If the anxiety persists, don’t try to put it at the back of your mind, says Jerilyn Ross, a psychotherapist and the president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, in Silver Spring, Maryland. It may seem counterintuitive, but “suppressing those feelings only makes them worse,” says Ross. “Instead, acknowledge them by thinking, OK, it’s happening, and they’ll go away more quickly."

Eating Alone at a Restaurant

A Reader Suggests:
Tracy Breyfogle, 37, a production assistant from Wilmington, North Carolina brings a book. “I extended a business trip and found myself alone for a weekend in Boston. That Friday night, I suddenly felt self-conscious,” she says. “Everyone seemed to be coupled or in a group. I saw a packed restaurant and hesitated, worrying what people would think when they saw that I was alone, but I knew I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t go for it. I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. As I scanned the room, I realized that no one was looking at me. I had my journal with me and decided to write an entry. (If anyone did spot me, I thought they might think I’m a best-selling novelist!) Now I even eat alone at some of my favorite restaurants in my hometown. If I’m feeling introspective, I ask for a quiet table and bring a book. If I’m feeling bold, I sit at the bar and strike up a conversation.”



Experts Add:
  • Remember, as Tracy realized, “most people aren’t focusing on you,” says Barbara Markway, a psychologist and the author of Painfully Shy (Thomas Dunne Books, $15). “People spend less time scrutinizing others than they do worrying about themselves.
  • Bringing a book or a magazine is a good idea because it “gives you a physical activity to do, which automatically shifts the focus from fretting to writing or reading,” says Markway.
  • Finally, practice. “Go to a coffee shop or a diner and sit by yourself for an hour each week,” suggests Florence Falk, a psychoanalyst and the author of On My Own (Three Rivers Press, $14). “Once you’re used to being alone, you’ll start to enjoy it.”

*Some names have been changed.

 

 

Attending a Function Alone

A Reader Suggests:
Laurie Sandell, 36, a writer from Brooklyn
tries to role-play. “As a journalist, I go to a lot of events on my own, but I still have those moments of dread: What if I don’t know anyone there? Why did I wear this dress?” she says. “When I get to an event and want to hide in the corner, I pretend I’m conducting an anthropological experiment. Instead of assuming people are watching me and wondering, Why is she here alone? I scan the room to see what everyone else is doing. If I see someone sitting alone, I approach that person and ask simple questions, like ‘How do you know the host?’ Nine times out of 10 that person feels just as uncomfortable as I do and is relieved that I broke the ice first.”



Experts Add:
  • “Before you arrive, think of a half-dozen things you can talk about,” says Don Gabor, a communications coach and the author of How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends (Fireside, $13). Books and movies are always relatable topics.
  • If there’s an emotional subject you want to avoid (for instance, you’ve just separated), rehearse stock answers to common questions, like “Where’s your other half?” so you aren’t left stumbling.
  • As you scan the room, adopt this as your mantra: They’re as nervous as I am. “People are so grateful when you introduce yourself,” says corporate coach Joyce Newman.
  • To avoid a “Now what?” silence after an introduction, follow with an easy compliment, such as “What a beautiful dress.”

Cold-Calling

A Reader Suggests:
Liz Subin, 40, a homemaker in Essex, Vermont
psychs herself up. “When a conservancy group I admire asked me to do some fund-raising for them, I thought it would be easy,” she says. “I’m a confident person, but cold-calling stripped me of that fast. The first no was like a punch in the stomach. By the fifth, I felt like a failure. But rather than quitting, I tapped into my passion for the group, and that motivated me to find a way to get through those calls. To rev myself up, I’d go for a run, work in the garden, or bake. I’d also rehearse my fund-raising pitch. Treating myself to a cup of tea after every 10 calls also helped.”



Experts Add:
  • Know the odds. “It usually takes 20 cold calls to net even one sale. So every single rejection is not cause for increasing alarm,” says Craig Harrison, a California-based corporate coach who teaches a class called Take the Chill out of Cold Calls.
  • Stretching, cleaning, or singing your favorite song before you make the call releases tension, as does smiling. “Research shows that smiling makes you sound more relaxed,” says Harrison.
  • Keep your pitch short―about 16 seconds―so you don’t waffle, which will only compound your nerves, Harrison says.
  • A bulleted script can also boost confidence. But in the end the key is to treat the call like any other.
 

Interviewing for a Job

A Reader Suggests:
Lauren Smith, 40, an officer of a philanthropic nonprofit organization in San Francisco

writes, researches, and rehearses. “I was nervous about interviewing for a job, since the position was a huge step up for me in title and responsibility,” she says. “Plus, I had no idea what the appropriate salary was, and the thought of discussing money made me nauseated. To help me unknot my stomach, I made a list of all my experience and capabilities, which reminded me how much I was bringing to the job. Then I found a survey of nonprofit-director salaries online and called a friend to practice my pitch. On the day of the interview, I wore my favorite skirt, which always makes me feel good. When the question of salary came up, I felt my adrenaline rise but took a deep breath and suggested a number that I knew was respectable based on my research. I was offered the position on the spot.”



Experts Add:
  • Write a letter to your potential employer, but don’t send it, says corporate coach Craig Harrison. Instead, read it aloud before the interview. “Keep your voice low and steady―this helps keep your heart from racing by forcing you to focus on your breathing.” As Lauren found, writing down thoughts is helpful. “It replaces anxiety with self-assurance and reinforces why you’re right for the job,” says Harrison.
  • Ask questions during the interview. “It takes the focus off you, which will make you less nervous,” says Linda Waters, a corporate coach and the founder of Back to Business, a Boston-based company dedicated to helping women return to the workforce.
  • Invest in an outfit that makes you feel good. If you don’t have a magic skirt like Lauren does, buy or even borrow something that works. “Studies have shown that you’re most confident when you like your appearance,” says Waters.

Asking Someone on a Date

A Reader Suggests:
Elizabeth Green, 56, of New Haven, Connecticut
doesn’t dive in headfirst. “My husband passed away in 2005. We had been married for 26 years, so the dating scene had changed dramatically,” she says. “The thought of asking someone out made me nervous. It seemed too forward or desperate, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life alone. So I picked a man I already knew and got up the nerve to ask him out. Practicing on someone I thought would say yes (and did) gave me courage. Then a friend told me about someone she had met on Match.com who might be my type. I took a deep breath, said out loud, ‘What do I have to lose?’ and sent him an e-mail suggesting we meet for a drink. Using e-mail took all the anxiety out of the situation because I was in control (and he couldn’t see that my hands were shaking). He responded positively that same day. Before I left my house that evening, I talked to my daughter and told her that I was looking to enjoy myself, not to find a new husband. Reminding myself of that calmed me down. Then I listened to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen.’ It got me pumped up!”



Experts Add:
  • Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” “It puts the situation in perspective, allowing you to destress a bit,” says Rachel Sarah, author of Single Mom Seeking (Seal Press, $15). “No matter what the outcome, you’ll feel a boost of confidence for having asked someone out.”
  • Come up with a game plan. “Start with an e-mail, then work up to a phone conversation,” says Sarah. “Doing what’s most comfortable for you will make you more at ease.”
  • And, finally, redefine your expectations: If you lower the stakes, then your anxiety levels decline dramatically.