8 tips to sooth social anxiety

As the sun comes out and summer gently knocks at the door, invitations to parties, weddings and picnics start to fill our diaries. It’s an exciting time for some, but for those who struggle with social anxiety, feelings of discomfort, fear, loneliness and inadequacy can be triggered as they worry about how they’ll manage this tricky season.


Whilst there is no quick fix for social anxiety, and change often requires work and consistency over time, the following tips may help bring some relief to those who are struggling.

Turn off the spotlight

The spotlight effect is the psychological term used to describe the uncomfortable feeling that you are under an illuminating spotlight. When we spotlight, we can feel that our appearance and/or behavioural insecurities are highlighted to everyone. When we believe that those around us are focused on our behaviour and/or appearance it heightens our feelings of self-consciousness and anxiety.

The good news is that people aren’t paying nearly as much attention to us as we often think they are. To demonstrate this, researchers (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000) asked students to wear an embarrassing T-shirt to class (Barry Manilow). The students estimated that 50% of students would notice what they were wearing – but in fact, when questioned afterwards, only 25% were aware of the Manilow T-shirts. The next stage in their experiment was to ask students to wear something a bit cooler to see if more or fewer people noticed them. The students again estimated that 50% of their peers would notice them, but this time only 10% did, leading to the comforting conclusion that people just aren’t as interested in us as we think, and are normally too busy with their own lives to care very much about what our actions and appearance.


Of course, this one sound easier said than done – but there are various effective techniques to help us ground and relax ourselves during anxious situations, and spending some time beforehand exploring and identifying what works for you can be really helpful.

Finding a short (around 5-10 minutes) meditation that we can practice before a party, meeting or event can be a soothing preparation. If we find ourselves struggling with anxiety whilst we are at an event, it can help to bring awareness to our breath, trying to keep it slow and regular. There are also breathing exercises that can be easily and discreetly utilised. A popular technique is star breathing, in which we can use our hands as a counting tool. Box breathing is an easy-to-remember technique that we can use at any time. Some people find counting backwards is a good grounding technique, as they focus on the semi-difficult task of counting, and their minds can focus away from anxious thoughts.

Forget the safety behaviours

People who struggle with social anxiety often develop safety behaviours, such as hiding their faces to prevent others from seeing them blush or preparing things to say in awkward moments. However, these safety behaviours can often harm other people’s perceptions of us. For example, if you hide your face, or focus on trying to remember what to say, this can cause a feeling of disconnect for the other person, who may even perceive that you aren’t interested in them. Rather than focus on our inner world try focusing your attention outwardly. Focusing on the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that surround us can help bring us out of ourselves.

Face your fears – if you want to!

A popular cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique is to create an exposure ladder. Individuals are asked to choose aspects of social anxiety that worry them, such as ordering food in a restaurant, speaking in a group, or presenting in a meeting, and then encouraged to list them in order of which cause the most to least anxiety. They then slowly tackle the ladder taking each step one by one, starting with the ones causing the least anxiety and gradually building up to the ones that cause the most. The exposure is done slowly and safely by the individual, with a small amount of increasing challenge.  

So, for example, if you’re worried about going to an event where you don’t know anyone, steps on your exposure ladder leading up to this may include, having a conversation with someone you don’t know very well, before having a conversation with a stranger. Chatting to someone you don’t know at a party, before joining a conversation with a group of people you’ve never met before.

However, this approach isn’t for everyone and when I asked a formally socially anxious client what advice he would give to someone else struggling he said "go to an event and just allow yourself to be an observer, don’t put yourself under any pressure to say anything/participate and don’t think you have to do anything again." This low-pressure approach really helped him, and he progressed through his anxiety from here. And undoubtedly, whilst he was still taking a step-by-step approach, he benefited from not having the clearly defined outcome (biggest fear) at the end of the ladder as he didn’t want to work towards a ‘big goal’ feeling much more confident and comfortable with the goal of attending the event being enough.

Get to know your social anxiety

Take some quiet time to reflect on your relationship with social anxiety. Ask yourself what you experience in both your body and your mind when you are feeling socially anxious. What happens physically (do you go blush, sweat, feel shaky, sick etc) and what thoughts go through your mind? Journaling can help you make notes of these thoughts and feelings.

Drop the expectations and don’t let your negative assumptions hold you back

The cognitive therapy model (Clark and Wells, 1995) suggests that individuals who struggle with social anxiety often think negatively about themselves (such as assuming they’re boring or unlikeable) and may also have exceptionally high standards for themselves in social settings (‘I have to be funny’, ‘I have to be interesting’ etc). These assumptions and expectations often lead us to assume that we will have negative experiences in social situations, leading to even more anxiety.

Just because someone may have called you boring five years ago doesn’t mean everyone thinks you are boring! Consider what negative assumptions you hold about yourself and how are these holding you back.

Also, ask yourself if your expectations of yourself are too high – if you’re worried about doing a presentation, think back at presentations you’ve attended – how many were amazing compared to how many were average or even a little dull? Accept that your presentation isn’t going to be perfect, you may fluff your lines, stutter and even blush a little – and that’s absolutely okay! Similarly, if you’re worried about going to a party and thinking you have to be the wittiest or most interesting person in the room, take the pressure off yourself and accept that you don’t have to be the best – it’s okay just to be yourself – it's unlikely that anyone has as high expectations of you as you do yourself.

Explore your anxiety’s origin story

Spend some time considering your history with social anxiety. Have you always struggled, or did it become more noticeable at a point in your life?  

Can you recall any situations/events/relationships from the past that may be influencing how you are feeling today? Did you witness anxiety growing up and are your parents socially anxious? As you explore your past you may find afterwards that you have a refreshed perspective on former events and can reframe them. This exercise may bring difficult emotions to the surface and so I encourage seeking a trained therapist to help you with this.  

Pay attention to diet and sleep

Whilst there is a lot of focus on the mind and working with this to help manage mental health issues, diet may also play an important role. In 2015, a US study found a connection that suggests, eating fermented foods -ones that contain probiotics – helps lower social anxiety. Whilst the researchers continue to explore the mind-gut connection, they suggest that combing a diet with fermented food, alongside traditional therapies (such as medicine or talking therapy) and exercise could be helpful. Researchers (Ben-Simon & Walker, 2018) have also found a link between those who struggle with insomnia and higher levels of social anxiety, suggesting that sleep deprivation can lead to loneliness, isolation and struggling to engage with others, so developing a good sleep routine could be helpful.

Growing social confidence takes time and commitment but it is achievable. Remember, everyone is different so you may find some techniques more helpful than others, be ready to explore what works for you.


Gilovich, T., Medvec, V., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one's own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (2), 211-222 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.2.211

Ryan, J. L., & Warner, C. M. (2012). Treating Adolescents with Social Anxiety Disorder in Schools. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 21(1), 105–118. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2011.08.011 

Clark, D. M., Wells, A. (1995). A cognitive model of social phobia. In R. Heimberg, M. Liebowitz, D. A. Hope, & F. R. Schneier (Eds.), Social phobia: Diagnosis, assessment, and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.

Matthew R. Hilimire, Jordan E. DeVylder, Catherine A. Forestell. Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model. Psychiatry Research, 2015; 228 (2): 203 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.023

Ben-Simon, E., Walker, M.P. Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. Nat Commun 9, 3146 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-05377-0

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Biggleswade, Central Bedfordshire, SG18 8GU
Written by Claire Coker, MA, MBACP Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Biggleswade, Central Bedfordshire, SG18 8GU

Claire Coker is an integrative counsellor, proud to be woke and anti ‘should’. She loves working with people who struggle with low self-confidence and/or loud inner critics. She’s all for saying no, respectful boundaries, breaking down negative self-beliefs and the magic of our unknown potential.

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