How to Overcome Eye Contact Anxiety

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

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Eye contact anxiety refers to the discomfort a person feels when looking at someone directly in the eyes. A person with eye contact anxiety may avoid making eye contact when talking to someone. If they do make eye contact, they may feel like they are being judged or scrutinized.

Eye contact anxiety can interfere with everyday social interactions. By the same token, the ability to maintain good eye contact is an important aspect of social interaction. People who look others in the eye are perceived as friendly and welcoming. However, many shy and socially anxious people have difficulty with this part of communication. 

If you've not been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder but still find that eye contact makes you anxious, you can build your tolerance by engaging in increasing amounts of eye contact over time, or practice strategies like the 50/70 rule, looking away slowly, and using the triangle technique among others that will be covered in this article.

Why People Avoid Eye Contact

People have eye contact anxiety for many reasons. For those without a diagnosed mental health condition, avoidance of eye contact could be related to shyness or a lack of confidence. Looking someone in the eye while speaking can feel uncomfortable for those without a lot of practice making conversation or who tend to prefer not being in the spotlight.

Eye Contact and Social Anxiety Disorder

Often, people with social anxiety disorder (SAD) describe looking someone in the eyes as anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable. This is likely due, in part, to genetic wiring.

Research has shown that people diagnosed with SAD have a pronounced fear of direct eye contact. If you have SAD, the part of your brain that warns you of danger (your amygdala) can be triggered by eye contact. 

A 2017 review published in Current Psychiatry Reports found that social anxiety is related to a mixture of being on guard and avoiding processing emotional social stimuli. This means that at a party, you might both be on the lookout for people who seem to be judging you, but also try to avoid situations in which you feel you are being judged.

In addition, the review showed that socially anxious people tend to avoid maintaining eye contact. Again, this is likely due to the fear of being judged.

Eye Contact and Autism

Research on autism shows that autistic people are hypersensitive to eye contact such that their brains show higher than normal activity in the pathways that process expressions on people's faces. This means that they may avoid eye contact because it can cause extreme discomfort and even pain.

The Power of Eye Contact

Making eye contact during conversation is an important social skill. It can affect how you are perceived by others both in personal and professional relationships. In fact, researchers have uncovered numerous benefits of maintaining eye contact during a conversation, including:

  • People will be more likely to remember your face.
  • People will be more likely to remember what you said long after the conversation has ended.
  • People are more likely to believe what you're saying.
  • People will perceive you as more confident and intelligent.
  • People will be better able to read and mirror other non-verbal cues.

Overcoming Eye Contact Anxiety

We all have varying levels of comfort when it comes to maintaining eye contact. While some people may be predisposed to fearing or avoiding eye contact, most can learn to improve their skills and become better at making good eye contact, starting with:

  • Reducing anxiety about eye contact
  • Improving skills for making eye contact

Reducing Anxiety About Eye Contact

People with a diagnosed anxiety disorder may benefit from treatment including cognitive behavioral therapy (CNT) or medication. Most people with social anxiety disorder can learn to overcome their fear response and maintain better eye contact. In this way, eye contact is just one aspect of social interaction that you can become desensitized to through practice and exposure.

Start small with people who make you feel less anxious, such as a good friend, and work your way up to more anxiety-provoking situations such as holding eye contact with your work supervisor.

You could even try starting with making eye contact with characters on television, in online videos, or over Facetime or other video chats if real-life eye contact feels too stressful at first. If you find your anxiety rising before or during situations in which you must make eye contact, try practicing deep breathing to slow your heart rate and calm yourself down.

Improving Eye Contact Skills

If you are talking to someone one-on-one (or looking at people within a group), choose a spot directly between or slightly above the listener’s eyes. If this doesn’t feel comfortable, try letting your eyes go slightly out of focus, which has the added benefit of softening and relaxing your gaze.

You can and should also look away occasionally. Staring too intensely can make people uncomfortable.

Tips for Making Eye Contact

  • Establish eye contact at the start. Make eye contact before you start talking to someone.
  • Use the 50/70 rule. Maintain eye contact 50% of the time when speaking and 70% when listening.
  • Look for 4–5 seconds. Hold eye contact for about four to five seconds at a time, or about as much time as it takes you to register the color of their eyes. When you break eye contact, glance to the side before resuming your gaze.
  • Look away slowly. When you look away, do it slowly. Looking away too quickly (darting your eyes) can make you appear nervous or shy.
  • Use the triangle technique. Rather than looking away or looking down (as this shows a lack of confidence), you can also look at another spot on their face. Imagine an inverted triangle connecting their eyes and mouth. Every five seconds, rotate which point of the triangle you are looking at.
  • Make a gesture. Break your gaze to make a gesture or to nod, as this appears more natural than looking away because you've grown uncomfortable with the amount of eye contact.
  • Look near the eyes. If looking someone directly in the eyes is too stressful, instead look at a spot on their nose, mouth, or chin.

Employing these two strategies to improve your eye contact will make your listeners feel more connected to you and increase the likelihood that you will feel more comfortable when speaking—either to a group or to an individual.

When speaking to a group of people, instead of thinking of the group as a whole, imagine having individual conversations with one person in the group at a time.

As you speak, choose one person in the group and pretend that you are talking just with that person. Look at that person as you finish your thought or sentence. As you begin a new sentence or idea, choose another person in the group and look them in the eye as you finish your thought. Make sure that you eventually include everyone in the group.

A Word From Verywell

If you find that the severity of your social anxiety is to the point that looking someone in the eye is overly distressing, seek help from a mental health professional or your family doctor. If you have not already been diagnosed with SAD, your symptoms will be assessed and you and your healthcare provider can develop a treatment plan especially for you.

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Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
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." She has a Master's degree in psychology.