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How to combat social anxiety at work

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Kayleigh Dray
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How to combat social anxiety at work: 4 tips from an anxiety expert.

For people living with social anxiety, the workplace can be a pretty stressful place. Here are four simple things you can try to change that. 

Social anxiety can seem like a bit of an enigma to those who haven’t experienced it. But for those who deal with this mental health condition on a daily basis, it can be a serious, debilitating and exhausting thing to live with. Indeed, while on the surface social anxiety may seem nonsensical, people living with social anxiety often deal with an intense fear of social situations which affects their everyday life.

As such, the workplace is a particularly challenging environment for anyone working to tackle their feelings of social anxiety; most jobs will involve interaction with other people in some way or another, whether that’s in meetings, during presentations or even one-to-one chats. 

And unlike building new friendships and relationships, social situations in the office are often inescapable and therefore especially anxiety-inducing – particularly if your job demands that you lead meetings or presentations.  

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Described by the NHS as a “long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations,” social anxiety (or social phobia, as it is also termed) is more than just shyness; according to the NHS website, some symptoms of social anxiety include: 

• Dreading everyday activities, such as meeting strangers or speaking on the phone

• Finding it difficult to do things when others are watching

• Avoiding or worrying a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company, and parties

• Feeling sick

• Sweating

• Trembling

• Pounding heartbeat (palpitations)

• Suffering from panic attacks

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In the office, those feelings of social anxiety can become more severe: you will be judged on your performance by people who have authority over you, you may be asked to speak in public, you could be required to lead meetings and you may, at times, have to deal with conflict.

There are a number of treatments available to help with social anxiety: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, can help you to identify negative thought patterns and behaviours – as well as to change them. Speaking with a therapist, similarly, can help you to identify the root of your phobia and tackle it. 

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And, while self-help probably won’t cure your social anxiety, it may reduce it. This is where Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and anxiety expert at Calmer You and author of The Anxiety Solution, comes in – here, she shares four useful tips to help you deal with social anxiety in the workplace, no matter where you work.

1. Push yourself regularly

“It’s important to take steps to do the things you’re nervous to do. If we avoid the things that make us anxious, such as presenting or speaking up in a meeting, we end up making the anxiety worse when we actually do have to face our fear,” Brotheridge tells us.

“When we’re anxious, our nervous system reacts as if speaking up were a life-threatening matter. But every time you put yourself outside of your comfort zone and you survive, you are affirming to yourself that it is, in fact, safe for you to speak up. You’ll gradually find that your fear reduces as you move towards it.”

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Essentially, you should start to do activities that you would normally avoid – this can be tough at first, so start with small targets and work towards more feared activities gradually.

2. Make sure you’re prepared

Social anxiety at work: “Being prepared leads to confidence.”

“If having to think on your feet makes you nervous and flustered, prepare what it is that you want to say in advance,” she says. “Remind yourself of the noteworthy things that you did at the weekend that you can share when making small talk with your colleagues, or jot down some ideas to share in the team meeting beforehand.

“Being prepared leads to confidence and you’ll find that once you’ve said a couple of things, the words will flow and it will be easier to say more.”

3. Tackle your beliefs

As well as writing down what you want to say or do in your next big presentation, you should also attempt to look back over similar events you’ve attended in the past and replace your unrealistic beliefs with more rational ones – for example, if you feel a social situation went badly, think if there are any facts to support this or if you’re just assuming the worst.

4. Visualise the situation 

Social anxiety at work: Visualise how you would like the situation you're anxious about to go.
Social anxiety at work: visualise how you would like the situation you're anxious about to go.

Brotheridge also suggests that you sit down in a quiet space, close your eyes, and visualise exactly how you want things to go – from start to finish.

“Mental rehearsal is a technique that many public speakers and even athletes use to ensure they go into situations feeling confident and calm,” she says. “Most people with anxiety catastrophise and picture the worst when they think about the future. Instead, it’s important to imagine things going as you would want them too. For example, say you have a pay review with your manager, and you’re nervous about asking for a raise.

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Brotheridge adds: “Visualisation is extremely powerful, and studies have found that mentally rehearsing something creates changes in the brain similar to doing it in real life.”

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It’s a good idea to see your GP if you think you have social anxiety, especially if it’s having a big impact on your life. They will be able to offer advice, details for support groups and, if required, refer you to a mental health specialist for a full assessment and to talk about treatments.

Images: Getty/iStock

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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