Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.
From public speaking during presentations, chiming in at meetings, and personality differences, managing social anxiety at work can feel like a second full-time job. Sometimes it can leave you watching the clock and counting down the minutes until you can destress from the comfort of your home. If social anxiety is throwing you off balance, there are ways to ease the worry and silence the fears. In this article, you’ll learn how to cope with social anxiety at work, so you can allow your anxious feelings to come and go.
What Is Social Anxiety?
When you think of social anxiety, many would immediately think of struggling to chit-chat at large social gatherings or sweating profusely while attempting to engage with strangers. But social anxiety is more than a consistent case of shyness at a party or a strong desire to stay in watching movies (who doesn’t love a good night in?).
Social anxiety or social phobia is a mental health condition marked by intense fear and excessive worry about social situations, including the workplace. And while it’s no surprise that many employees experience anxiety within their careers, those with social anxiety often find the workplace unbearable.
While a certain level of anxiety can boost motivation and inspire you to accomplish milestones, those with social anxiety experience severe emotional and physical symptoms at the mere thought of interacting, giving presentations, or even voicing their opinions. Their palms sweat, heart races, muscles tense up, stomach knots, and their ability to concentrate and make decisions becomes hazy – much like how most people feel in an interview.
Why does this happen? The nervous system sends an emergency response to avoid imminent danger even in the absence of a stressor. This causes an intense emotional and physical response to terminate the danger and return to a safe place. Experiencing social anxiety is kind of like walking through a jungle and believing a lurking lion is hiding behind each tree even with no visible sounds, sights, or tracks of a lion present.
If this sounds like what you deal with at work, you’re not alone. 57% of U.S. and Canadian workers report feeling stress on a daily basis (source). Dealing with normal work stress is challenging enough. With social anxiety thrown into the mix, anxious thoughts can negatively impact your performance, quality of work, and your relationships with your colleagues and supervisors. But don’t fear. We will provide coping strategies that will tell your anxiety, no thank you – not today.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
Before you learn how to cope with social anxiety at work and be a champion of confidence, it’s helpful to learn about the underlying causes. Like the majority of mental health conditions, a combination of genetic, and environmental factors causes social anxiety to manifest.
- Genetic – If someone in your immediate family has social anxiety, like your parent or grandparent, it increases your chances of developing the disorder. While specific genes passed down by your family make you more vulnerable to experiencing anxious feelings, so does your environment.
- Environment – Some children learn social anxiety through an early traumatic event (direct conditioning). Did the teacher call your name to answer a question, and you struggled to respond, resulting in the classroom laughing at you? This event could impact how you behave in social situations, even in your adulthood. Another possible explanation is how parents interact with their children (observational learning). If parents are overly worried about potential social dangers, they can unknowingly pass this fear to their children. For example, if you observed your mother tensing up during social situations or dreading meeting strangers, there is a possibility you learned social anxiety through observation.
The workplace is, unfortunately, a breeding ground of anxiety stimuli. You consistently encounter new situations, interactions, and experience work demands that test your ability to think and act under pressure. And your performance is observed under a microscope with pressure to exceed past expectations (How fun! Not).
We’re also human, which means we experience physical symptoms combined with emotional stressors – workplace fatigue and burnout. No wonder so many people are going digital. But even remote jobs can trigger social anxiety (Slack notifications, Zoom conferences, and micromanaging time tracking apps). Can’t we win?
12 Signs You Have Social Anxiety
If you think you or a colleague is experiencing workplace social anxiety, here are some common signs and symptoms:
1. Intense fear and excessive worry of social interactions
2. Self-criticism following intimate or public social interactions
3. Persistent fear of judgment when interacting
4. Low self-esteem and confidence
5. Anticipatory anxiety about interacting
6. Self-conscious feelings during social situations
7. Persistent worry about doing something embarrassing
8. Fear that others can detect visible anxiety
9. Anticipatory fear of physical symptoms that result from anxiety
10. Avoiding social situations
11. Consistent desire to not be the center of attention
12. Expectations of negative consequences after interacting
So what can you do when you catch yourself critically analyzing your interactions with colleagues or dreading the office parties for fear of embarrassing yourself? With a combination of mindful activities and interpersonal strategies, you can arrive at work more relaxed and leave your concerns at work. Let’s take a look.
How to Cope with Social Anxiety at Work: 12 Tips
1. Imagine scenarios
Providing opinions during meetings or giving presentations can be nerve-wracking, especially the days leading up. If you want to keep your social anxiety from disrupting your participation, practice what you will say and how you will present it before the event. Conducting imaginary scenarios (i.e. role-playing) with friends and practicing voicing your opinions helps you build inner confidence. When you become more confident practicing and developing a habit of speaking up, the fear of embarrassing yourself becomes less powerful.
2. Face your anxiety
You are a human being having a human experience. Even though it might feel more comfortable to suppress your anxiety, ignoring it only gives it greater power. Think putting off studying for an exam or avoiding a looming problem that needs your decision – it becomes more difficult to manage once you finally deal with it. Social anxiety behaves in the same manner. Instead of wishing it away, sit with it and try to understand its source. When you experience the associating fear and discomfort, you are more equipped to dismantle anxious thoughts and manage future situations. So, the next time you find yourself anxiously avoiding speaking to your boss or speaking up about a problem at work, remember to give yourself grace and acknowledge the thought – it’s a response to a stressor not a future prediction.
3. Tackle social interaction in small proportions
With social anxiety, it’s either this or that. It makes a quick jump from asking a colleague a question to the thought of believing they are going to spread gossip about you or the fear of losing your job. There is no grey area between the sides of extremes. To break this cycle and to unmask a little rationality, try slowly inching towards the fear. For example, if you’ve been meaning to get closer to your desk mate, begin with small interactions. Speak face-to-face instead of sending an email or spend a few minutes to get to know them. This strategy provides mental practice and exposure to the trigger – take it from Tony Robbins and feel the fear, but in small steps.
4. Create a reward system
The reward system works with facing your fear in small steps. When you break down your fears into smaller parts, try rewarding each step you make to challenge yourself.
For instance, if you want to speak up more during meetings, practice the habit beforehand and reward yourself immediately following. Rewarding a new behavior incentivizes the likelihood of that behavior repeating and can trigger a cycle of positive social behaviors.
Get creative with your rewards. You can either reward yourself with a tangible reward (chocolate) or a growth reward like tracking every time you step outside your comfort zone. After tracking your growth, reward yourself with a larger treat like a holiday, spa date, or buying those pair of shoes you can’t stop thinking about.
5. Keep an anxiety diary
Journaling and tracking your anxious thoughts is an effective mindfulness tool. It can help you ward off the anxiety and tension by providing a pathway to let go and release all the internal chatter, especially at night.
If you’re replaying a situation that happened with a colleague or are anxious about an upcoming meeting, you can alleviate the tension by writing it down. Jot down the positives, things you can do to practice and improve, and lessons learned. Allow your pen to direct your thoughts and anchor you in the present moment.
6. Be aware of your breath
If you’re feeling anxious, revert your attention to your breath. You’ll notice you’re taking rapid and shallow breaths. Instead, take deep and slow breaths from your abdomen or practice the box breathing technique.
Imagine a box is in front of you. Breathe up one side for four seconds, hold your breath for another four along the top, then exhale down and then to the side, both for four seconds. Repeat this technique, following the same pattern.
Even if you’re in a meeting, whether in person or on Zoom, speaking to a colleague, or worried about meeting a deadline, this technique will help you avoid the flight-or-fight response that builds fear.
Social anxiety thinks about the future consequences, but the anxious thoughts and emotions you feel are present. The muscle aches, racing heart, and tingling hands are all physical byproducts of emotions happening in the now.
Revert your focus by practicing a mindful strategy at work to keep you present without the accompanying fear. When you feel anxious, roll on your favorite scent (lavender, ylang-ylang, vanilla) and sniff it to calm your nerves. For anyone who needs relief from everyday work anxiety, aromatherapy brings you into the here and now with a wave of comforting scents.
8. Meditative music
Listening to meditative music on either Spotify or YouTube provides the same calming effect as aromatherapy. The workplace can be a noisy environment that can skyrocket your anxiety with triggers. Office conversations, distractions, and general sounds from your cubicle neighbor can send your system into overdrive.
Sometimes it’s helpful to plug in and step away from the outside noise. A symphony of 432 Hz, waves, and forest sounds can mindfully help you breathe, recenter, and silence the chatter, both around you and within you.
9. Recite a mantra
When your inner critic and anxious thoughts decide to run the show, it can be challenging to kick the self-judgment to the curb. A playback of what ifs, and should ofs dominate your inner dialogue.
Questioning every possible outcome or result leads to more self-doubt and feeds the anxiety. In most cases, your social anxiety hides any logic and skips straight to predicting, forecasting, and imagining worst-case scenarios.
Try disrupting this cycle before your anxiety calls in sick for the week by reciting a mantra to shift your focus. ‘I choose peace over fear. I am strong, capable, and skilled’. Reciting a mantra pauses the anxious thoughts and gives you a moment to reset, recalibrate, and refresh. Repeat the mantra as many times as you need to break the cycle and recenter yourself.
10. Introduce a grounding tool
When your social anxiety is at its peak, it can feel impossible to recenter. Especially when you’re at work, and you fear others can tell you’re having a panic attack. If you want to manage your anxious thoughts before they uncomfortably build, give your brain a grounding tool.
Look at the room around you and name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This grounding tool centers your attention elsewhere and puts you in control.
11. Talk to your boss
While the thought of talking to your boss might skyrocket your anxiety, ripping off the bandaid might help you long-term. If your boss is aware of your social anxiety, they will be more equipped to help you manage it. Social anxiety robs you of opportunities to build social relationships, connect, and makes you feel like you’re going through everything alone. Confiding in your boss or a trusted colleague can help you release some of the built-up anxiety while reminding you that you have a support system.
12. It’s okay to receive professional help
If your social anxiety is negatively impacting your job, perhaps you’re ready for a change. It’s okay to seek encouragement, support, and direction from a professional. Therapists are skilled at targeting the root causes of unpleasant feelings, teaching you how to cope with social anxiety at work, and reducing the likelihood and intensity of your anxiety symptoms.
Remember to acknowledge your anxious thoughts for what they are and not allow your fear to take control. Take a deep breath and reach out to those you trust and can confide in at work. You don’t have to fight this battle alone. You got this!