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How to combat social anxiety in the workplace

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Kayleigh Dray
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If you suffer with social anxiety, it can feel all too easy to avoid the cause of your phobia: people. However, there’s one area of your life where this tactic is almost impossible – so what can we do to tackle these feelings of anxiety in the workplace?

The office is one of the most challenging environments when it comes to coping with social anxiety. More than shyness, it’s an intense fear that can make it feel almost impossible to succeed in the workplace – particularly if your job demands that you lead meetings or presentations.

According to the NHS, some of the 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

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. 

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.

Chloe Brotheridge

Brotheridge tells us: “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 a presenting or speaking up in a meeting, we end up making the anxiety worse when we actually do have to face our fear.

“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.”

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. In the meantime, though, how can you reduce these feelings of anxiety?

Well, according to Brotheridge, preparation is key.

“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.”

“Being prepared leads to confidence.”

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.

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.

“Spend some time beforehand visualising how you’d like to feel, act, think and speak in that meeting. Imagine yourself with confident, open body language, breathing easily, making eye contact, being clear-headed, speaking smoothly and calmly and saying just what you want to say. You’ll go into that situation feeling much more self-assured as a result.”

She 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.”

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: iStock

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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