Social anxiety and blushing

Blushing in itself is not harmful, yet, for those struggling with shyness and social anxiety, the dreaded feeling of flushed cheeks and a blotchy red neck and chest only adds to our distress. It feels akin to waving a flag aloft, shouting out to others ‘over here’ to look at us when we’re already feeling self-conscious and dreading any kind of attention.   


What causes blushing? 

Blushing can happen due to a variety of factors: alcohol, fever, spicy foods, hot drinks, menopause, strenuous exercise and medical conditions such as rosacea. However, considering it through the lens of shyness and social anxiety, blushing occurs by the triggering of our sympathetic nervous system, a complex network of nerves which activate our survival responses – commonly referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ response.   

When we feel threatened, e.g. a fear of saying something we perceive others will deem 'stupid', our sympathetic nervous system becomes mobilised. When this happens, our blood vessels widen to accommodate the increased flow of blood, hence the familiar redness of blushing. 

Common situations blushing occurs in include 

  • Talking with someone in authority, perhaps with your boss or during an interview.
  • Talking with unfamiliar people or indeed those known to us.
  • Making a presentation at work.
  • Talking with someone you are attracted to.
  • Talking in front of a group of people, perhaps making a presentation at work or a speech in front of friends e.g. a wedding speech.

Desperate to stop this attention-seeking beacon from calling out to others. we will try all kinds of ways to hide it. As someone with first-hand experience of excessive blushing, strategies I tried included:

  • Hiding under layers of makeup.
  • Hiding under clothes such as scarves and roll-neck jumpers.
  • Hiding under long hair.
  • Bring hands up to cover the neck and face.
  • Avoiding eye contact. 
  • Standing outside in the cold.
  • Running wrists under cold water.  
  • Avoiding social interactions completely.

What I didn't realise at the time was that blushing is an automatic process which is nigh on impossible to stop once it has begun and trying to hide it ironically just makes it more obvious. My safety-seeking behaviours simply end up drawing more attention to myself. 

So if none of the above help… what does?

Strategies to help overcome the fear of blushing 

Repeated exposure

By now you understand that blushing is out of our conscious control, there is nothing wrong with it and it’s simply a sign of our nervous system being activated. We cannot choose when our nervous system is activated but we can choose how we respond to it and to change our associations with situations that we currently deem threatening.  

The way to do this is through gentle repeated exposure, gradually taking ourselves out of our comfort zone and repeating until that particular scenario feels less threatening and, over time, not at all. By not engaging in our habitual safety-seeking habits, and tolerating blushing (blushing never harmed or killed anyone), we’re creating a new fact-based association.

Our nervous system learns that although the situation feels uncomfortable, we’re able to tolerate it which, in turn, tells our brain that we’re not in any real danger. Thus we change the association from one of 'This is terrifying, get me out of here' to 'This feels uncomfortable but I know I can tolerate it' to 'This situation is not dangerous'.  

Simply by staying in the moment and accepting the blushing, we’re re-wiring our brains. Yes, that’s right, accepting the very thing we desperately want rid of! If we keep engaging with our habitual coping mechanisms, all we’re doing is keeping our sympathetic nervous system activated, replaying the feedback loop and reaffirming our belief that the situation is dangerous. 

Once activated, there’s no stopping our nervous system, the only way is through and the sooner we come to accept that, the better. It may feel as though it’s going on forever but trust me, that’s a biological impossibility as the adrenal glands empty themselves and thus the release of adrenaline will stop. So try to stop whatever your current safety behaviours are. Whether that be covering up, hiding or running away, whatever it is, it’s only drawing more attention to you and perpetuating things.  

When you feel the blushing start, rather than fixating on it, focus externally. The more you can stay engaged in the conversation, the better. It takes continued effort and practice but it really is worth the effort. On the very rare occasions, someone remarked on my red neck (factually, there were no more than a handful of times although in my mind it was every time), I reassured myself it was a sign my nervous system was working as it should do, replied, 'Oh, is it?' and carried on as if it didn’t bother me. My apparent disinterest led the other person to follow suit and thus the danger (fearing they’d point and laugh at me) disappeared. Through repetition, my nervous system learned those social situations were in fact safe, there was no need for it to mobilise and the blushing stopped. 

Fact vs fiction

Social anxiety is driven by a fear of how others perceive us so we need to challenge what we imagine versus the actual reality. When we blush, we imagine others can see us from miles in the distance, heads glowing like a beacon, looking like we’re about to spontaneously combust whereas in reality, this is not the case. Others are usually so caught up in their own stuff, they don’t notice, or if they do, it is nowhere near the level we imagine it to be. When was the last time anyone pointed at you across the street saying 'Goodness look how red that person is’? Exactly, it never happened to me either yet I was acting out as though they were and I bet you have too. 

Stop mind reading

Mind reading is a common and really unhelpful thought style. We overanalyse every single interaction, replaying it again and again in our minds trying to work out what was going on in the other person's mind. If they didn’t tell you, then you’ll never know and it’s not helpful trying to guess. Get up and do something else rather than sit and ruminate.  

I hope by now you realise blushing is a perfectly natural bodily process but if it’s problematic for you to the point that it disrupts going about your daily life, holds you back at your job or interferes in other areas of life, consider consulting a professional to help you beat the blush.  

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

Share this article with a friend
Sittingbourne, Kent, ME9
Written by Carrie Boyle, MBACP (Accred), ACTO | Shyness and Social Anxiety Specialist
Sittingbourne, Kent, ME9

Carrie Boyle - Shyness and Social Anxiety expert based in Sittingbourne Kent offering both 'in-person; and online counselling.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Social anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals