“Should I still go to that party tonight?
I’m not really sure who’s going…or how many people I’ll actually know.
I also don’t feel like spending the rest of the day stressing out about who’s going to be there, what I should wear, bring, and talk about.
Maybe I’ll just stay home. Yeah, I’ll just chill here and finish reading that book or find something good to watch. There will be other parties.”
This is a typical train of thought of someone with social anxiety—like me. It’s this kind of internal dialogue that always starts when I consider attending social events. I’m very good at convincing myself not to go—the excuses are endless. I don’t feel like dressing up, I should clean up my apartment, I’ll see my friend next week, etc.
If this type of struggle hits home, know that you’re not alone. Social anxiety—excessive fear of social humiliation—is the second most common type of anxiety disorder in the United States. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 15 million adults experience it, starting during their teenage years. And 36 percent of people with social anxiety struggle with it for ten years or more before seeking help.
Defined by the American Psychiatric Association, it is “a persistent fear of one or more social situations where embarrassment may occur.” Although this fear is strong, it is unwarranted, since it is “out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation.” The situation can be any kind of social interaction such as starting conversations, attending a party, talking in meetings, and meeting people.
Social anxiety disorder is different than being shy. Shyness is a personality trait while social anxiety is a very real condition. Your sincere and supportive friendship can do a lot to help those of us who struggle with social anxiety. Here are some proven ways to be there for your friends who have social anxiety—based on what’s helped me and others. It takes one to know one, after all.
01. Listen and learn to have empathy.
The first step is to understand what your friend is going through. It can be hard to relate to these behaviors if you don’t share the same tendencies. Therapist Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC, explains, “While you may be excited, or even a little overwhelmed by the idea of attending a party or going to a networking event, your friend with social anxiety may feel paralyzed by the thought.” Consider having an open discussion with your friend to learn what she needs for support in a social situation and how social anxiety affects her—each case is unique.
02. Plan something she will enjoy.
Ask and observe what types of situations your friend is comfortable in, and try to plan things every now and then that she can enjoy stress-free. You could make an extra effort to schedule a low-key coffee date with you and one or two other close friends. In general, fewer people and familiar settings are best. Organizing with your friend’s needs in mind will show her you really care and want to help her shine and relax.
Dr. Kevin Hyde proposes events with a specific purpose: “While just hanging out over drinks can be very uncomfortable for someone with social anxiety, attending a sporting event or board game night takes some pressure off of them. When the focus of attention is the game, conversation becomes secondary, and your friend with social anxiety doesn't need to feel as pressured to assume the spotlight in sharing his or her thoughts.”
03. Invite her to show up with you.
It’s always easier to arrive with someone—especially when entering a room full of people or an unfamiliar place. If there’s an upcoming dinner party or other social gathering, invite your friend to meet up with you beforehand to go together. This will relieve some of their nerves about socializing or finding someone to talk to when they get there. They’ll also be more likely to actually come and not bail at the last minute.
Part of overcoming social anxiety is confronting it, not avoiding it. Avoidance can actually increase anxiety. Psychologist and social skills coach Lucio Buffalmano confirms, “A friend can help the socially anxious individual by providing him with a friendly face and support in social settings. The knowledge and feeling of having someone nearby is the biggest help we can provide in increasing their social confidence and skills.”
04. Introduce her to one person at a time.
Help them ease into a social setting or a new friend group with a one-on-one introduction. Often it’s the big group settings that overwhelm people with social anxiety. I know that I tend to clam up when there are a bunch of people engaged in lively chatter or gathered in groups.
Psychotherapist Cody Mitts, MA, NCC, agrees, “Help make introductions to your friend because they may not feel comfortable talking to new people.”
Find someone you think they’ll connect with and make an introduction. You can hover to get the conversation going before gliding away. Then, your friend will feel less isolated with a new buddy and more willing to merge their conversation with a bigger group or someone else new. They’ll at least make a meaningful connection!
05. Draw her out, don’t call her out.
The worst nightmare for someone who struggles with social anxiety is being put on the spot. We tend to freeze up and panic internally. I know that I like to think through things a bit before speaking up in a new situation, around new people, or on an unfamiliar topic. It’s tempting to call someone out, but hold back. For example, a question like, “Sarah, what side are you on?” in the middle of a group debate may be met with a blank stare or a stuttered response.
Instead, draw her out with a specific question or even a comment that could prompt them to speak if they want — but doesn’t require a response. “Sarah, didn’t you tell me you read an interesting article about this debate recently?” Or just direct the group’s attention to her, “Sarah told me she read an article that does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument.” The latter invites her to contribute without demanding it.
Creating space in the conversation through gentle prompts or pauses lets her jump in if she wants. Dr. Kevin Hyde, licensed psychologist, recommends, “If you can, allow some pauses to give them a chance to engage in the conversation. They often won't actively speak up in a normal paced group conversation unless given the opportunity.”
06. Share your own embarrassing experiences.
We all have our own embarrassing stories. Help your friend lighten up by sharing your own awkward moments or social faux pas—and how you recovered or worked through them. This will give your friend some comic relief amidst her anxiety and even equip her with some tips.
If you experience social anxiety yourself, don’t hold back from sharing your struggles. It’s always nice to know you’re not the only one! You will also benefit from this vulnerability, which can lead to rewarding and bonding conversations. Embarrassing examples will help your friend realize that it’s not the end of the world if something awkward happens—she’ll survive.
A supportive friend can make a big difference to someone with any type of anxiety disorder, particularly social anxiety. No one can totally avoid social situations, so it is exhausting and discouraging to go through life dreading socializing. But you can help those of us with social anxiety to shine and thrive!