Shyness and social anxiety are common, no matter how old you are. But social connections are the heart and soul of our livelihoods – and they can make you feel better.
"We know that there are health benefits to not only having a strong social support network, but also feeling like you have one," says Thomas L. Rodebaugh, PhD, an an associate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. "We don't know how this works exactly, but the evidence is overwhelming: Friends are an important part of 'the good life.'"
If fear of social situations is stopping you from making connections you want to make, it may be time to consider some changes.
"If you are saying 'I wish I would have' or 'I'm sorry I didn't,' those are statements that tell you are missing out on things," says Patricia Farrell, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist. "You can overcome shyness. It won't be that easy at first, but it's just like anything else, it gets easier as you go along."
Breaking Out of Your Shell
Kelly Sullivan is proof you don’t have to be shy forever. Since elementary school, "painful horrible shyness" gripped her life. She feared speaking. In her teen years, she'd befriend the most outgoing person she could find to speak and act out for her, so she could remain quiet.
Then she made a brave change that took her out of her timid comfort zone.
“After college I decided to break free and go out on my own,“ Sullivan says. “I moved to a city on the other side of the country without knowing a soul.
“I think part of me realized this was the only way to force myself to stand on my own in order to conquer my fear of people and fear of speaking and voicing my opinions.”
Her love of reading and writing, both of which were coping mechanisms for her in her younger years, led her to a surprising career choice.
"Books were always my escape when I felt shy. [It] caused me to want to teach others the same way to communicate. One thing led to another, and I became a middle school teacher," she says.
“Another coping mechanism - put yourself in an environment where you have to [speak to people],” she said.
That doesn’t mean it was easy.
"The first year I taught I shook so badly during open house and when meeting the kids."
How Can You Do It?
Learning how to be less timid and make stronger social ties can boost your self-esteem and lower your stress. These pointers can get you started:
1. Figure out whether you’re shy or anxious.
Shyness is a personality trait. Anxiety is a medical condition. "Someone who is shy might be anxious talking to someone new, but the anxiety goes away pretty quickly as they get to know other people,” Rodebaugh says. In the case of social anxiety, it may rarely decrease.
Call your doctor if you worry for weeks before an event or have a lot of apprehension that doesn't go away. Anxiety disorders can be treated.
2. Breathe .Relaxation breathing is a great way to calm your nerves before an event. "It is self-soothing and no one will know you are doing it," Farrell says.
It also cuts down on production of cortisol, often called “the stress hormone.”
Do relaxation breathing any time you start to feel shy or anxious: Take a deep breath in, and hold for 4-5 seconds. Then breathe out through the mouth. Repeat this five times. While you do it, keep your mind on relaxing different parts of your body. Don’t think about anything else.
3. Practice small talk with a stranger.
Say hello to a person on the bus or running the toll booth. Talk about the weather. Don't worry if it doesn't go well. The most important thing is to say "I can do this," and practice.
"Do your best to see conversations as experiments," Rodebaugh says. "Learn how you like interacting with different people and how they react to you. In science, we do experiments many times to make sure we really understand what's going on. It's the same here."
Remember that conversations start with a few simple words.
"Small talk seems small, but lots of small talk with the same person is often the start of a friendship," Rodebaugh says.
4. Share your apprehension.
When Sullivan first started teaching, she found support in the simplest of ways: by just telling people she was nervous.
“I have found this to be extremely helpful in situations. Most people are [nervous] and will understand when you tell them this."
5. Go back to school, for fun.
Begin low-level networking with a casual and non-threatening group of people. Farrell recommends signing up for a fun class. Try finger painting, learn woodworking, or go bird watching.
"The idea is to get in with a group of people with a common interest," she says. "In these groups, the focus is not on you, it's on the topic you are dealing with. That becomes a very easy thing to talk about and builds your confidence level."
Smiling makes you more approachable. Not only that, but that one simple act can make you feel less anxious.
"Every smile requires that you use an enormous number of muscles in your head and face, and that calms you down," Farrell explains. "Smiles change the way you feel about yourself and what you are doing."
7. Get offline and go out.
Social media has helped many shy people connect with others. But Farrell says the Internet helps people maintain social isolation and fears of going out. Face-to-face contact is the key to building long-lasting social ties that help break the habit of shyness.
"The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it is too artificial. And you never know if who you are conversing with online is genuine. This can lead to some very uncomfortable and, in fact, dangerous situations," Farrell says. "It's better to go out and do something engaging with a group in person."