How Do I Get Over My Fear of Social Situations?

Talk with a stranger on an elevator to challenge yourself.
Chat with someone on an elevator to overcome fear. Getty / Taxi / Hinterhaus Productions

If you suffer from general fears about social situations, exposure therapy can help you to gradually become less anxious in the scenarios that you fear. You can practice exposures as a self-help strategy outside of traditional treatment offered by a cognitive-behavioral therapist.

Slowly Build Confidence

Instead of throwing yourself into situations that cause you to dread and fear, the idea behind exposures is to slowly build up your confidence and ability to cope by gradually facing more difficult situations. For example, you might start out making small talk with a cashier and work your way up to eventually hosting a party at your home.

Problems With Avoidance

It is possible to go through the motions of doing exposures but never really engage in the situations. Doing so means that you are using subtle avoidance strategies also known as partial avoidance.

If you find that you space out or disconnect when around people, you might be relieving your anxiety through partial avoidance.

It is important to be fully present in situations and engage with people in order to experience anxiety and then have it gradually subside.

Imagined or in Vivo

Although the ideal situation is to practice exposures in real life, if you are too afraid to start out doing this or do not have access to the scenarios that you fear, you can also start out with imagined exposures. Over time, you can then build up to real scenarios, also known as "in vivo."

Fear Hierarchy

Listed below are a series of situations that you could potentially include on your fear hierarchy for exposure to social situations. You will want to create a list that is unique to you and that includes those scenarios that you fear in increasing order of severity.

  1. Ask someone for the time. Stop someone on the street or in a store and ask for the time.
  2. Talk to someone in an elevator. Instead of standing idly in an elevator, make small talk about the weather or a recent news event.
  3. Give someone a compliment. Give a sincere and genuine compliment to someone about something that you admire.
  4. Talk to a classmate or coworker. When you arrive to work or to a class, try talking a bit with a coworker or classmate. Ask how the weekend was or about a work or school assignment.
  5. Join a conversation. Try joining into an ongoing conversation either at work, at school, or at a social function.
  6. Give a differing opinion. If you have a different opinion than someone about something, try offering your viewpoint instead of automatically agreeing with what the other person has to say.
  7. Call a friend. Call someone that you haven't talked to in a while or that you would like to get to know better.
  8. Invite a friend to do something. Make plans for someone to do something like see a movie or take your dogs for a walk together.
  9. Go out for lunch with a group. Plan to go out for lunch with friends, colleagues or classmates.
  10. Host a party at your home. Plan a party or gathering in your home for several friends or family members.

These are some basic ideas to get you started creating your own fear hierarchy for social situations. Remember that you must stay in each situation for enough time that your fear is reduced. Otherwise, your anxiety about the situations will not diminish and may even increase.

Although there is much that you can do on your own to manage social anxiety, if you find that your fear is severe, it is important to contact your doctor or a mental health professional for a diagnosis and treatment options.

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  • Antony MM, Swinson RP. The shyness and social anxiety workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger; 2008.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."