If Your Social Anxiety Flares Up at Work, Keep These Tips in Your Back Pocket
Office life is a minefield for anyone with social anxiety—so here are some basic ways to deal.
After over a year of working from home, many companies are starting to talk about returning to the office. But while your co-workers might be excited to go back to some sense of normalcy, you might have a nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach. What if you're put on the spot during a big meeting? How will you manage going back to being "on" all day after months of being remote? And how will you navigate coworker small talk in the office kitchen? The very idea of these episodes may prompt feelings of dread.
If you're nodding your head in agreement, it's likely you're experiencing a bout of social anxiety, either for the first time or in a heightened way—and you're not the only one. Mental Health America reports that 15 million Americans have Social Anxiety Disorder. While social anxiety can rear its ugly head in any scenario, experiencing it at work can be particularly challenging, especially if your office is a highly social environment. But just because you have social anxiety doesn't mean you can't work through it and keep it from impacting your work performance and social interactions.
To help ease the worry, we're breaking down how social anxiety can manifest in the workplace and sharing smart ways to cope with it.
What exactly is social anxiety, and why does it flare up at work?
Before you can cope with social anxiety at work, it's important to understand exactly what you're dealing with. According to the American Psychiatric Association, social anxiety is defined as "a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others." While there is no known cause of social anxiety, it can often lead to a jolt of imminent fear as well as irrational thoughts and behavior, says Veroshk Williams, PhD, a clinical psychologist in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"Basically, the alarm system of the body is malfunctioning," says Williams. "The nervous system is telling the person [with social anxiety] that there is an imminent danger that needs to be avoided when there is none." Or at least, not something that warrants such an intense stress response.
Oftentimes, social anxiety can be coupled with physical symptoms like blushing, trembling, sweating, an increased heartbeat, and dizziness. While social anxiety can manifest at parties, networking events, on a date, or at large gatherings, it's also highly common at work. Why? Simply put, work can be an anxiety-provoking stimulus in so many ways.
"You're always being evaluated by others, you might be exposed to new situations, you're put on the spot, you're held responsible for your performance—there's pressure and you want to perform well," Williams explains. "This is the perfect combination for social anxiety and panic to arise. In addition, a lot of times we're often fatigued from work, which makes it easier for our nervous system to malfunction."
How to Cope With Social Anxiety at Work
Dealing with normal work anxiety at work can be challenging enough; but the added layer of social anxiety can impact your overall performance and increase your anxiety even more (and a lot). To help keep anxious thoughts at bay, here are some expert-approved tactics to try.
1 Practice—Don't Wing It
For anyone with work-related social anxiety, leading a meeting or speaking up on an important call with a client can be nerve-wracking. If you want to participate in big meetings—and feel good about it—practice what you're going to say first. It completely changes the game.
"Conducting mock interviews with a friend or practicing your presentation in front of someone you're comfortable with can help you get used to the task," explains Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Journey Pure. "You can eventually progress to making presentations to a larger group of people for practice." He adds that when you become more confident in your delivery, it'll be easier to overcome the fear that you'll mess up and embarrass yourself.
But why limit the powerful prep to big meetings? Wind recommends taking this approach to everything on your calendar—even those one-on-one appointments with your boss (which might scare you the most—large crowds aren't the only interactions that can spark social anxiety).
"During the meeting, you'll be able to focus on your points and come across as being highly prepared, which can reduce the nervousness and fear that you feel," he says. Arrive to a meeting with a list of talking points and questions. Though this list is designed to put your mind at ease, it might show your boss that you're a prepared and engaged employee. It's a win-win in our book.
2 Give Yourself a Pep Talk
Work anxiety is often rooted in fear; the fear that you'll mess up, embarrass yourself, or bother your coworkers. Though it can be easy to let those thoughts dominate your time in the office, Wind challenges you to kick any negativity to the curb. "Don't fixate on thoughts that you're going to fail your interview or bomb the presentation," he explains. "Don't let your inner critic tell you that you're the only problem in this situation. The workplace is a stressful setting for everyone."
Instead of worrying about that big presentation, remind yourself that you're thoroughly prepared and know what you're talking about. Or, if you're nervous about meeting new coworkers, remember that all you have to do is be yourself (they're likely just as nervous as you are, promise).
If you want to keep that positivity going all day long, recite a mantra when you're feeling a little tense. Not only can a mantra put your mind at ease, but it can also let you hit the fresh button on any anxious thoughts.
3 Focus on Something Else
Social anxiety usually isn't a small, lingering feeling in the back of your mind; it's all-present. The more you think about your work anxiety, the more power it seems to have. If you want to get a handle on your nervous thoughts, try to focus your attention elsewhere. You can't think about two things at once, right? So replace the stream of anxious thoughts with something else.
Do you get panicky when you enter a room of people? "When walking into a room, look for all the colors of the rainbow in the room," says Andrea Dindinger, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. "Give your brain a task to focus on instead of the anxiety and fear creeping up. Tell your anxiety that you're putting it on hold while you look for red, orange, and yellow. This lets your anxiety know that you're in charge."
Another way to take your mind off of those social pressures is to implement a daily box breathing practice. "Inhale up the side of an imaginary box for three to five seconds, hold your breath for three to five seconds across the top of the box, then exhale for three to five seconds down the side of the box and hold your breath for three to five seconds across the bottom of the box," she explains. "Repeat as many times as you can until you can be present with all four sides of the breathing box."
Whether you're playing rainbow "I Spy" or working on your breathing, focusing on something else will give your social anxiety less power.
4 Know You're Not Alone
When you have social anxiety, it's easy to assume you're the only one feeling this way. But in reality, you're really not alone, especially when it comes to going back to work. For many, that fact in itself puts them at ease.
"Keep in mind most people are feeling the very same awkward and uncomfortable feelings you're feeling about reengaging," Dindinger says. "Take your personal fears and realize they're not personal to you, but more of a global experience."
Sometimes, simply talking about your anxieties can make you feel a little better about whatever you're going through. "Share with a trusted friend how you're feeling about going back," she adds. "In general, anxiety makes us push away or hide, and by bringing it out into the open to a trusted confidant, it helps release some of the anxiety."
Dindinger says that when people feel like people can relate to their feelings, they feel less anxiety and greater levels of happiness. And, if you feel less overwhelmed with anxious thoughts, you can focus on the tasks at hand and maybe even start to enjoy parts of the nine-to-five grind.