How To Overcome Eye Contact Anxiety

Tips for Making Eye Contact

Man talking to a woman on the train.
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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. 

What Is Eye Contact Anxiety?

Eye contact anxiety refers to discomfort about making eye contact or looking other people in the eye. A person with eye contact anxiety may feel unable to look directly into other people's eyes when talking or feel like they are being judged or scrutinized when making eye contact. Some people simply aren't as comfortable making eye contact as others.

Why People Avoid Eye Contact

People have eye contact anxiety for various 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 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 social anxiety disorder (SAD) have a pronounced fear of direct eye contact. If you have social anxiety disorder, the part of your brain that warns you of danger (your amygdala) can be triggered by eye contact. 

Eye contact and autism

Research on those with autism shows that people with this condition 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 these individuals avoid eye contact to manage feelings of arousal; in other words, eye contact is a painful experience for them.

How to Overcome Eye Contact Anxiety

It is important to make eye contact during conversation. This skill is vital both for your career and personal relationships. While some people may be predisposed to fearing or avoiding eye contact, most individuals can learn to improve their eye contact skills and become better at making good eye contact. In this way, overcoming eye contact anxiety is a two-part process: 1) reduce anxiety about eye contact, and 2) improve skills for making eye contact.

Reducing Anxiety About Eye Contact

Individuals with a diagnosed anxiety disorder will benefit from treatment including cognitive-behavioral therapy and/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.

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. Gradually, it should feel less uncomfortable as you do it more often.

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 by making eye contact with characters on television, in Youtube videos (e.g., vlogs), 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

One-on-One

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. Look away occasionally. Staring too intensely will make people uncomfortable.

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.

Below are some additional tips:

  • Use the 50/70 rule: maintain eye contact 50% of the time when speaking and 70% when listening.
  • Hold eye contact for about 4 to 5 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.
  • When you look away, do it slowly. Looking away too quickly (darting your eyes) can make you appear nervous or shy.
  • Don't look down when you look away, as this shows a lack of confidence.
  • Rather than looking away, 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.
  • 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.
  • Make eye contact before you start talking to someone.
  • If looking someone directly in the eyes is too stressful, instead look at a spot on their nose, mouth, or chin.

    In a Group

    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 him as you finish your thought or sentence. As you begin a new sentence or idea, choose another person in the group and look her in the eye as you finish your thought. Make sure that you eventually include everyone in the group.

    Research on Eye Contact in Social Anxiety Disorder

    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.

    A Word From Verywell

    If you find that your social anxiety is severe 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 an anxiety disorder, your symptoms will be assessed and a treatment plan for your unique situation drawn up.

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