That sweating, trembling feeling: 10 strategies to cope with your shyness
Social anxiety can manifest itself mentally and physically. Here are ways you can learn to manage it
A woman looks through a gap in the curtains.Shy people often feel anxious about social encounters. Photograph: Alamy
According to British singer-songwriter Morrissey, “shyness is nice”. When it leaves you feeling breathless, voiceless and even friendless, though, it can be anything but nice.
Shyness often manifests as social anxiety, and as Morrissey sings in his song Ask Me, it can stop you from doing the things you want to do in your life.
After spending more than four decades wrangling with my own shyness, I wrote a book called Shy: A Memoir in which I investigated the causes and symptoms of this inherited personality trait.
I discovered that shy people often felt anxious about social encounters because they feared other people’s judgment – specifically, their negative evaluation. We torment ourselves with self-critical thoughts such as “I look out of place”, “I sound stupid” and “I’m making a fool of myself”.
Our fear can manifest as a bunch of distressing physical symptoms, including sweating, trembling, hyperventilating and blushing. Shy folk feel self-conscious in the company of people they don’t know well and will cross the street to avoid having to speak to acquaintances. In the long term, social anxiety can also mess with the digestive system. All that churning sometimes causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
The good news is that shy people are often those with the most empathy. We spend a lot of time considering what other people are thinking. Many shy people go into the caring professions, like nursing, teaching and counselling.
So how can we best deal with the downsides of shyness and take advantage of the upsides?
We used to think shyness was refined. That was before social media
Based on the research I did for my book, I’ve come up with a list of 10 practical strategies for coping with shyness:
1) Use self-talk to reduce your discomfort. Remind yourself that 50% of the people around you are probably also feeling shy. You are not alone in dealing with these feelings. Try to separate your mind from your body’s symptoms, eg tell yourself “oh, there go those butterflies in my stomach again, they’ll disappear soon”.
2) Plan ahead. Prepare for social events that you feel nervous about. Spend some time trying to remember the names of the people who might be there. Perhaps find “safe” friends who are also going to the event. Use self-talk to remind yourself that you won’t be able to control all aspects of this social interaction. Be prepared to deal with a level of uncertainty.
3) Help others at social events. Try to spot some other shy people and help them out by approaching them. This takes the focus off your own discomfort and gives you a focus to help you take the attention off yourself. Assume the burden of initiating the conversation by asking others questions about themselves.
4) Try exposure therapy. Give yourself regular small challenges in dealing with your shyness, to give yourself confidence (but keep them small to begin with because if you have bad experiences they might reinforce your fears). Then reward yourself for being brave in the face of your anxiety.
5) Organise or join social activities in ways that suit you. It can help to arrange or go along to events that are regular or semi-regular (eg book clubs, clothes swaps, meet-ups, classes, tree-planting) where you know who’ll be there, and there is an activity as the main focus of the event. This gives you something to talk about that you all have in common, as opposed to free-form socialising.
6) Confide your shyness to others rather than hide it. This can have a cathartic effect and reduce your sense of aloneness and/or shame.
7) Adopt a “persona”. In your professional capacity or your parenting capacity, for example, you can tell yourself that you are not being judged, because you represent something bigger and more important than you (your place of employment, your useful work role, or your role as a carer).
8) Keep a diary of your journey to manage your shyness/social anxiety. Note your progress and your challenges. Reflect on what you are going through.
9) Use social media to reach out, but be wary of the downsides. Monitor its effect on you and take breaks when you need to. Assess the positives and negatives (eg FOMO).
10) Try other anxiety management strategies. Consider meditation, yoga, physical exercise, deep breathing and other forms of relaxation therapy. You can also seek professional counselling. Psychologists are trained to help people with social anxiety and can offer cognitive behaviour therapy and reassurance. You could also consider joining an anxiety support group.