Do you feel nervous and awkward in social situations? Do you get tongue-tied when you meet new people? Do you avoid going places where you’ll have to make conversation with people?
You’re not alone. An estimated 7.1% of U.S. adults and 9.1% of adolescents have what’s called social anxiety. Also known as social phobia, this common condition is characterized by a persistent fear of situations when you’re around new people or might face scrutiny by others. Basically, you’re afraid you might do something embarrassing or humiliating.
Would you like to feel more comfortable around others? You can. Jeremy Greene and Kyle Mitchell did it.
Jeremy was bullied growing up and was filled with thoughts like, “I’m not good enough” and “Nobody likes me.” His social anxiety was so high that when he landed a gig interviewing celebrities on the red carpet, he was so terrified, he had to go out and practice by talking to the general public.
Kyle was consumed with anxiety when he went from a small private high school to a huge public one where he didn’t know a single soul. He would sit in a bathroom stall crying until the first bell rang. For the rest of the day, he just tried to stay under the radar.
Neither one of these two guys wanted to feel this way. So they started researching the neuroscience of anxiety and put in the work to change the thinking patterns that were holding them back. They both broke free from severe social anxiety and now they host The Social Ninjas Podcast to help others do the same.
As the co-author of The Brain Warrior’s Way, I can relate to the concept of being a ninja in the fight for the health of your brain and mind. I interviewed Jeremy and Kyle recently to find out how they did it and to get some tips that might help you learn to overcome social anxiety too. (Watch the video here.)
7 Strategies to Overcome Social Anxiety
1. Start small. If you’ve been following my social media pages for some time, you may know that I’m a “jump the canyon” kind of person who likes to dive into things at 110%. But Kyle and Jeremy suggest that for people with social anxiety, it’s better to dip your toe in the pool rather than diving off this high dive. “Don’t sign up for a public speaking gig for 100 people,” cautions Kyle. “A lot of people try to go way too big and that just brings you down and makes you feel worse. What does he suggest? “Just talk to one person,” he recommends. If the thought of talking to a stranger fills you with terror, try Jeremy’s suggestion: “Just go and wave to 10 random people.”
2. Overcoming social anxiety requires ongoing effort. Kyle says, “I no longer struggle like I used to, but I still have to have a daily practice.” He’s right. Overcoming anxiety—or any other mental health issue or addiction—isn’t something that happens overnight. It requires a daily commitment to change your thoughts and behaviors. When you understand this, you’re more likely to stick with it rather than falling back into your old habits and negative thought patterns.
3. Drinking and drugs are just distractions. “Drugs and alcohol and substance abuse are just a form of distracting yourself from the emotions and things you’re feeling,” says Jeremy. “People use it as a crutch.” For anyone with social anxiety, drinking can provide “liquid courage” as Kyle says. Although this may help in the short-term, drinking and substance use actually increase anxiety in the long run.
4. Be compassionate toward yourself. Everybody slips up or does something embarrassing in public. Jeremy and Kyle have both learned not to be so hard on themselves when they do. “Forgive yourself as quickly as possible,” says Jeremy.
5. Look at your negative thoughts like an observer. Jeremy, who used to have thoughts about not being good enough, has learned an important lesson about what’s going on inside his head. “My thoughts do not define me,” he says. Now, when he has those harmful thoughts, he notices the thought as an observer and finds that it separates him from it.
6. Go for gratitude. You get to choose what your brain focuses on. Kyle says that during the pandemic, he’s focused on the positives—getting to spend more time with his 3 kids and his wife. “I could focus on what sucks about it, like not getting to be in my bowling league, but that would just make me feel bad,” he says. Similarly, Jeremy asks himself every day, “What are 3 good things that happened to me today?” They don’t have to be incredibly amazing things, they can be simple things like having a great breakfast, sunshine, or whatever brings you a little bit of pleasure. Personally, I like to take gratitude practice a step further with accountability. During the pandemic, a friend and I would text each other our gratitude lists every day. It’s hard to feel bad when you get a gratitude list from someone.
7. Being vulnerable and asking for help makes you a superhero. Admitting that you have social anxiety doesn’t make you weak. Kyle and Jeremy both found that talking about their anxiety has made them feel stronger and freer.