How to Socialize When You Have Social Anxiety Disorder

Socializing tips for social anxiety disorder

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

Knowing how to talk to people when you have social anxiety disorder (SAD) can be difficult. Even after getting treatment, you may find that you lack some of the social skills needed to connect with people effectively. It is a hurdle that many people with SAD face but one which can be overcome with a little patience, practice, and insight.

Social Performance Deficits

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders sought to determine whether people with SAD were actually less skilled in social interactions or just thought that they are.

What the researchers found was that, in people who were socially awkward, their performance was generally worse in their heads compared to what actually occurred.

It's rather like giving a speech you thought you messed up, but the message still came through.

In people with SAD, the outcome was somewhat different. What the researchers found was that individuals with the disorder had social performance deficits, essentially gaps in their communication skills that limited how well they could interact with others.

This would be akin to giving a speech without knowing your subject or to whom you were speaking. Without these key reference points, it would be difficult to know how to act or respond appropriately.

Social Skills Training Tips

Many people with SAD have avoided talking to others for most of their lives. Even when they are finally able to control their anxiety, they will often have no idea how to start a conversation, read body language, or identify social cues.

There are some tips that may help. The aim is to teach you that communication is about more than just speaking. Like any new experience, there may be stress and the occasional gaffe when you first start, and it's important to recognize that this is normal. By merely being present, things will improve, sometimes invisibly, as you become more accustomed to social situations.

Below are a variety of techniques to try that can help.

Expend Some Energy

Physical exercise can help you deplete some of the energy that would otherwise fuel your anxiety. Try finding a workout that you enjoy and that increases your heart rate. In the long run, physical exercise has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression while boosting overall mood.

You can start feeling the stress-relieving effects of exercise after just one session. Try to work up a sweat before your next social outing and observe how you feel—maybe you are less nervous leading up to, during, or after the event.

Start Small

If you're at a party or in a large group, socializing can feel especially overwhelming. Try not to be hard on yourself if there are many people in the room and you haven't talked to most of them. If you already know one or two people, you can start by talking to them.

If you don't know anyone, introducing yourself to one person is a great start. Pace yourself—you don't need to rush or talk to everyone in the room.

If you relax and focus on enjoying yourself, it's likely that others will start conversations with you as well.

Use Self-Help Tools

Try coming up with a mantra, or a word or phrase, that you can repeat to yourself when you feel stressed. Maybe you repeat to yourself, "I am at ease," or "I can relax." You can say anything that reminds you that you're not in any real, physical danger.

Take some deep breaths. Deep breathing calms down your nervous system and can reduce the "fight-or-flight" response that often occurs when people with SAD become overwhelmed. Try taking a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds, and releasing it.

Avoid Using Alcohol to Cope

It's tempting to use alcohol or other drugs to cope with social anxiety, especially if you think a substance will make you more talkative or more social.

While you might indulge in a social cocktail or two, avoid using alcohol or any other substance as an outlet for your social anxiety.

Substances that affect your mood, like alcohol, can easily make you feel more nervous to interact with others. Alcohol can also contribute to feelings of irritability and depression.

You're also less likely to act like yourself if you're misusing a substance. People can often tell if someone is being their authentic self or if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs—it's best to be yourself.

Notice Body Language

If you want to indicate that you are open to socializing, avoid looking down at the floor or at your phone. Try to stand with good posture, arms by your side, and even a slight smile on your face. People take this as a sign that you are friendly and available for conversation.

You might be able to get a sense—simply by looking at someone—as to whether they are interested in having a casual conversation. Take a look at their body language.

Someone who is standing in a relaxed position and making eye contact with you will likely start a conversation or reciprocate if you start one.

Some people may look like they are unavailable. Maybe they're on their phone, looking down, and their body language indicates they're closed off. If this is the case, there's no need to force a social interaction. Maybe you wait a moment to see if their body language changes. Or, you can safely assume they are not in the mood to talk right now—and that's OK.

Self-Care

If you have social anxiety, you know that social interactions require a lot of energy. It's important that you replenish your energy and your mental health after you interact with people.

Congratulate yourself for putting yourself out there—it's not easy and you are improving your social skills every time you use them. Make sure you take time to relax. Self-care looks different for everyone, but some ideas include:

Self-care also means not being hard on yourself. If you have the tendency to replay every social interaction in your mind, criticizing yourself for what you said or didn't say, try to divert this energy and do something else instead.

How to Talk to People

Conversing is a skill, just like riding a bike; the more you do it, the better you will get. You can start conversations almost anywhere—waiting in line at the grocery store, walking in a park, or grabbing a drink at your local coffee shop.

Be Respectful

If you're looking to start a conversation, or join one that's already happening, be as polite as possible. This means not interrupting someone else when they are talking. Try to match the volume of your voice with your environment (if you're indoors, use your "indoor voice").

Avoid checking your phone or looking somewhere else while you talk or while someone else is talking. Maintaining eye contact will let the other person know you are listening.

Leaving a conversation should be as graceful as possible, too. Even after a small conversation, people generally respond well if you say "Have a nice day," or "It was nice speaking with you," after a social interaction.

Don't Be Afraid to Start the Conversation

If someone else doesn't start the conversation, don't be afraid to initiate it yourself! If you are standing in line, for instance, it's a great opportunity to connect with someone since you'll likely be standing there for several minutes before you both change location.

It's a good idea to have some conversation starters in mind. For instance, a lot of people make casual conversation about the weather, especially if the weather has been unusual or unpredictable.

You might start up a conversation based on an observation on your surroundings. If you're in a park you might say, "I've never seen the park this crowded before!"

No matter what the topic is that you start with, remember that conversations are fluid.

Listen to what the other person says and be flexible when it comes to subject matters. As long as you are comfortable engaging with this person and feel safe talking about a topic, you can let the conversation flow naturally.

You might try to start a conversation with someone who doesn't respond. That's OK, too. Research shows that while strangers often ignore each other in public spaces, most of us feel more positive after interacting with another person. So, it's worth it to try to connect with other people, even if it doesn't work out.

Be Yourself

While you might have some small talk topics in your head, don't be afraid to express honest and real opinions. People tend to prefer genuine interactions than a template for conversation.

Be yourself! Being your authentic self will create more authentic conversations. When they feel like they know you better, they will likely feel safer and freer to be themselves, too.

Ask Questions

One study found that there is a link between question-asking and liking: Conversation partners who asked questions and follow-up questions were more liked than conversation partners who didn't ask questions at all.

Maybe you base your question off a common interest. For instance, if you're both in the same coffee shop, you might ask them what their favorite drink is to order. Or, if you're at a concert, maybe you ask the person how long they've been a fan of the musical artist.

Here again, body language is key. Face the person when you speak to them, as much as possible, while still respecting their personal space. Make eye contact. You might add in a nod or a smile here and there as you listen and respond to what they're saying.

Avoid Overthinking

You might be nervous during the conversation. One study observed that people consistently underestimated how much they were actually liked by their conversation partners—a phenomenon researchers coined, "the liking gap."

Try not to overthink it. If you find you have thoughts like, "I don't think they like me," or "I feel like I sound so stupid right now," try to let go of the negativity, take a breath, and refocus on what the other person is saying. Be in the moment.

View each conversation you have as practice. Reframing your experience can help you avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism and allow you to enjoy the moment more.

Even the smallest interactions can turn into friendlier encounters and good conversations. But not every conversation needs to be long or in-depth. Allow the experience to be whatever it is—however big or small—and look forward to your next opportunity to talk to someone.

Conversations With Activities Help Avoid Dry Conversations

To overcome dry conversations, put yourself in situations where you can combine conversation with activity. Invite a person to join you at a place where you can move about or focus on an activity if there is ever a hiccup in the conversation.

While lunches or dinners may be OK, there is really is nowhere to turn if the conversation runs dry (other than to comment on the food or surroundings). Instead, consider these options:

  • Attending a sporting event
  • Joining an exercise or yoga class
  • Playing a sport or even a simple board game
  • Shopping together
  • Taking a walk or a hike
  • Visiting a nursery or a farmer's market

Doing these activities together can help stimulate conversation and take some of the pressure off the back-and-forth volley of conversation.

Practice Nonverbal Communication

People with SAD tend to be unaware of the physicality of communication. As a result, they may create barriers that suggest they are distracted, disinterested, or disingenuous.

These behaviors may include:

  • Inability to maintain eye contact
  • Speaking too softly, too quickly, or with an unsure tone
  • Standing too far away
  • Smiling too much or too little
  • Slouching or keeping your arms crossed
  • Looking down

Body language awareness goes a long way. You can better communicate with others simply by making eye contact, smiling gently, and standing with your chin level to the ground and your arms by your side.

In fact, good posture is linked with feeling more confident. One study found that participants who sat upright, with good posture, for an extended time, reported feeling more confident and had higher levels of self-esteem than those who sat slumped, with poor posture.

A Word From Verywell

These are just a few of the tips that can help you on the road to becoming socially interactive when you're living with social anxiety disorder. Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that mistakes will happen and you will need to forgive yourself. We all have social mishaps—it's human—but it is only by making mistakes that we can learn and improve.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I handle people at work who talk too much?

    Avoid giving them any social cues (like sustained eye contact or approaching them) that would indicate you're open to having a conversation. If you want to leave a conversation that's already happening, you can give a reason such as "I need to make a phone call," or simply say, "Please excuse me," and walk away.

  • What is social skills training, and how can it help me?

    Social skills training (SST) is behavioral therapy that can help improve communication, peer relations, and problem solving. SST is often taught by a therapist or teacher in a group setting. SST can help you learn to communicate more effectively, be a better listener, and overcome social anxiety.

  • How does social skills training help people with social anxiety?

    Social skills training (SST) can help you overcome your fear or anxiety around people by teaching you new ways of communicating, allowing you to practice social interactions, and giving you constructive feedback. SST can help reduce the level of distress you feel in social situations.

  • Can talking to people online help improve my social skills?

    Maybe, but remember that talking to people online isn't the same as talking to them in person. While talking to people online can help you get comfortable with back and forth conversation and coming up with things to say, an in-person conversation requires different social skills—such as body language and other social cues—that are best learned by practicing them.

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