You really can’t judge a book by its cover. Take the social butterfly of your friend group, for example: Her friendly persona is genuine, sure, and she really does enjoy joining the conversation, but her nervous body language tells a different story. Anyone could be suffering from social anxiety, and unless you’re particularly close with someone who has it, you’d probably never know it off the bat. When a friend or loved one confides in you, though, it can be helpful to research some of the best ways to help someone with social anxiety so the next time you hang out in a group setting, you’re able to spot the red flags and jump in to make them feel more comfortable.
According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety disorder is the third largest psychological problem in the United States — yikes. Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, tells Elite Daily that someone struggling with this type of anxiety typically has "a very intense fear and anxiety about being in social situations," which can include having a conversation with someone, meeting new people, performing in front of others, or even being observed while doing something, like eating, drinking, or giving a speech.
Your best friend could have social anxiety, and you might not even know it. It's not that socially anxious people don't enjoy being social — they can have extroverted, as well as introverted personalities — they're just simply hyper-aware, and often very fearful of, what others think of them. It's not an easy thing to deal with, but it's even worse to muddle through alone. If a friend or loved one confides in you about their social anxiety, here are some ways to help them through it.
Obviously, you're not going to be the hostess with the mostest at every soirée you and your loved one will attend, so not every detail of the night is going to be under your control, and that's OK. If you want to help them feel a little more at ease in social situations, though, Dr. Forshee says it's best to keep the lines of communication flowing. "Help get them back into the game," she suggests. "For example, if you notice your friend is avoiding social situations, ask them what you could do to help. What do they need from you?"
In other words, maybe try discretely checking in with your friend every few hours, or excuse yourselves from the crowd if they express discomfort at any point. From there, create a game plan together. If there's an easy way to adjust the situation so they feel more comfortable, that's great. If not, then you might want to suggest an alternative, like taking a break from the crowd and spending some time alone together, instead.
According to Michael Alcee, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Tarrytown, New York, a person can develop social anxiety for a few different reasons: "They are very concerned about how they appear to others, have perfectionistic tendencies, or are just very self-critical and expect others to be the same," he tells Elite Daily. The common thread here is that all of these triggers are internal issues; someone who's struggling with social anxiety is doing so inside their own minds.
The best thing you can do for someone in this situation, Alcee says, is distract them in little ways from what they're feeling internally: Maybe you'll take them outside for a walk around the block, or you'll sit down and play a board game, or maybe you can even suggest they do something solo like read a book or listen to music until they feel ready to face the crowd again. Anything to divert their focus can be helpful here. Claire Eastham, a mental health blogger and author of the book We're All Mad Here, wrote about this very topic in an article for Healthline:
When I’m having bad anxiety, my friends and I often play word games like I Spy or the Alphabet Game. This will distract the anxious brain and enable the person to calm down naturally. It’s also fun for everyone.
Even though you are your own worst critic, I'm willing to bet at one time or another, you were anxious about how someone might perceive you, too. It's normal to not want to be negatively judged by others, but part of what makes social anxiety so overwhelming is that, not only do you feel nervous about what your peers or loved ones are thinking, you're anxious about becoming anxious. When it comes to helping someone who feels this way, let them know they're not alone. Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of the book The Anxiety Toolkit, wrote in an article for Psychology Today,
There are many types of anxiety-based thoughts that people with anxiety disorders experience that even relatively non-anxious people also experience from time to time.
Communicate that you don't see their anxiety as a weakness, character flaw, or a sign of them being incompetent in their life, work, or other roles.
You've heard the turn of phrase "face your fears," right? Well, one of the best ways to overcome anxiety is to gather up the courage to face whatever it is that's making you anxious. In this case, you're going to want to encourage your friend or family member not to hide from social situations, even if that means starting small by having them call or visit a family member, instead of shooting over a text.
Help them make a plan of action, instead of avoidance, and "talk through the steps they'd need to do to break free of their avoidance," Boyes explained in Psychology Today. "For example, 'well, the first step I'd need to do is....' Help them identify and/or take that first step."
You can be the biggest cheerleader, and be there at all the right moments, but unless you're a professional yourself, there might be roadblocks you just can't break through. When the going gets too rough for your friend or loved one struggling with social anxiety, encourage them to seek treatment. Don't consider it a failure; consider it a white flag. You tried your best, but now, it's time for them to take the next steps necessary to work through the struggle.