Managing Social Anxiety at Work
Social anxiety disorder (SAD), also known as ‘social phobia’, is a diagnosed chronic mental health condition.
However, it doesn’t need to stand in the way of you reaching your potential.
All socially anxious people have different reasons for dreading certain situations. However, in general, SAD is an overwhelming fear of being judged, accidentally offending someone, being scrutinized too closely and being at the center of attention.
Simply put, it is an intense fear of the judgment of others and being found to be lacking.
Social anxiety is usually triggered by circumstances that demand interaction with other people.
In the workplace, it is difficult to avoid this, especially as situations requiring interaction crop up unbidden through the day.
These could include talking to colleagues about a project, presenting to a client or having to cold-call potential customers.
It’s important to remember that social anxiety is not the same as being shy.
Many of us have anxious traits or feelings triggered by certain situations, but for socially anxious people, the strength and frequency of these reactions can be significant and can make workplace interactions very difficult.
Social anxiety can present in many forms, and there is certainly not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis.
However, by recognizing your triggers and mental health state, you are making a brave and significant step towards managing your condition.
When a social anxiety sufferer is in a situation that triggers their condition, they experience a fight-or-flight response. This results in uncomfortable mental and physical reactions, including some or all of the following:
- Increased heart rate
- Breathing difficulties
- Muscle tension
- Brain fogging or freezing (when your mind feels like it has suddenly gone blank)
- Overthinking and catastrophizing
Social anxiety can have many causes, but a less-talked-about element is that it is often experienced by individuals with extremely high standards, and with elevated levels of empathy and compassion.
People with social anxiety often work hard to integrate within their workplace, valuing their colleagues, clients and work extremely highly.
These are all positive strengths, but when exacerbated they can have detrimental effects on the individual.
Yes. Don’t ever let social anxiety be a factor in putting you off your dream career.
However, to most effectively manage your social anxiety, there are considerations to make before diving headfirst into a job.
Consider what your main triggers are, and work from there. For example, you might feel more comfortable talking one-on-one, but group scenarios are much more triggering.
Therefore, you would thrive better in a role where your chances of having to interact with groups are significantly reduced.
Another consideration to make besides the job that you are setting your sights on is the interview process itself.
Do not be hard on yourself for finding this part challenging. You genuinely are the center of attention at an interview, and this is often a huge focus of fear for a sufferer of social anxiety.
This will go some way to alleviating some of your anxiety.
Read this article for 11 great job ideas for people with social anxiety.
Social anxiety can feel like a huge hurdle to overcome, but there is much to gain from finding ways to do so.
Reasons for managing your social anxiety include:
- Improving your enjoyment of work
- Allowing better bonding with your coworkers
- Enabling you to share your ideas
- Improving your ability to receive feedback
- Improving your mental and physical health
There are a few things that you can try to see if they help you to manage your social anxiety. You can build a more positive mental environment for yourself by taking small steps.
These could include hiding behind your phone to avoid direct interaction with people or drinking to feel more relaxed.
These are both strategies that will only increase your anxiety in the long run and lead you into negative habits which can be especially hard to break – especially when you may naturally associate them with ‘saving’ you from potentially stressful situations.
By eating healthily, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly, you are already setting yourself up with a great mental foundation.
Not enough sleep and an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise can and will naturally make you feel less cognitively at ease.
Consider this scenario: you have an office meeting where you know that you will be required to speak with your colleagues. Consider how much better you will feel if you walk into that meeting having had a fantastic workout, a healthy breakfast and an early night, rather than going in feeling tired and sluggish.
This leads on naturally from the tip above. Just as you are preparing your body and mind to support you through nourishing them with the right food, rest and exercise, you will further set yourself up for success when you prepare for your meetings well in advance.
When you prepare, you are giving yourself room to rehearse what to say and to feel confident in your knowledge.
Once you get into the habit of preparing for a meeting, you can rehearse your notes and get used to the safety net offered by your groundwork.
When your focus is pinned on the stress that is triggered by social anxiety, you are not only focusing negatively but also potentially adding stress onto stress.
Your physical reactions, such as an increased heart rate, are a signal that the body is harnessing its resources, preparing you for what it perceives as a situation that requires all of your strength.
Understanding that this is a false alarm helps to frame the situation in logical terms, helping to diminish its significance.
Another method that helps to positively shift perspective is the 'yes but' technique.
This is when the individual experiencing negative thoughts counteracts each harmful thought with a positive affirmation.
“I need to make a presentation to a business client. I’m not going to sound professional and they won’t take me seriously.”
Could be counteracted with:
“I have prepared well for my presentation. My points are well-researched and I am confident in the work that I have achieved alongside the rest of my team for this project.”
The first step towards helping yourself to manage, understand and deal with your social anxiety should be to seek the help of a mental health professional.
However, engaging in relaxation or mindfulness techniques can give you additional support and may prove a useful coping strategy.
So, breathing; nothing to it, you might think. But you’d be wrong.
When experiencing social anxiety, we begin to take faster, more shallow breaths.
When we try to counteract this by taking a longer, deeper breath, we activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is directly related to the body’s fight-or-flight response.
This means that we can serve to make ourselves feel even more under pressure if focusing on the inhale. This can be easily counteracted by instead exhaling first and expelling all the air, then taking a normal-sized inhale.
There are many breathing techniques online which are simple and learnable. You may also consider taking up yoga, where breathwork is an integral part of the practice and you may also be led through other mindfulness exercises, depending on the type of class and the teacher.
A good way to take the edge off a stressful social situation is to do something nice for someone else.
This may help to replace the negative pre-association with a positive one and to give strength to a positive narrative that will get stronger in time, diminishing discouraging self-talk.
For example, when popping out to grab yourself a coffee, ask your colleague if they’d like one too.
You have just opened up a conversation, and shown yourself to be willing to make the first move by a small but thoughtful gesture.
Thoughts are just that: thoughts. But it can feel like the easiest thing in the world to let them run away with us, constructing a whole reality that feels real enough but is not true.
After your next interaction at work, whether that’s with your boss, a colleague or a client, examine the outcome logically.
If the outcome is fairly indifferent, you have nothing to feel fearful or negative about.
It is also important not to catastrophize. Consider whether what you are afraid of happening is truly a catastrophe or not.
This can also be applied if you feel a situation didn’t go so well for you – is it really and truly that bad? Did people actually notice? Will all this matter in a year? Can things be fixed?
Life is not a constant drive towards a mecca of perfection. We all experience the burn of an awkward silence or the toe curl induced by a misplaced remark.
If you make a mistake at work, you are not going to suddenly turn into a social outcast whom no one is ever going to speak to again.
Your colleagues will be understanding and will have made mistakes themselves.
‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as the saying goes. Sometimes it can help to share your worries and get another person’s perspective.
When sharing, consider talking to a trusted manager or a colleague that you get on well with. But don’t feel under pressure to do this.
It is normal and healthy to feel anxious sometimes, but if you suffer from social anxiety disorder, certain situations can be debilitating.
Understanding your triggers and finding ways to counteract the effect they have on your mind and body will help you to manage your anxiety and enjoy more fulfilling interactions with others.