Teen Breathe

How to manage and overcome everyday social anxiety

When your heart is pounding during a social situation, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re the only person who’s ever felt this way. But in reality, it’s common to feel a little anxious about everyday activities. The good news is there are ways to get through it.
WORDS: Sophie Jo
ILLUSTRATION: Silvia Stecher

What is anxiety and what are the signs of it?

Anxiety is often talked about as if it’s something new, but in fact, it’s an important protective mechanism that dates back to early humans. ‘The reason humans have evolved to have emotions is to teach us and help us remember what we’ve learned,’ explains Natasha Devon, a writer and mental health campaigner. ‘So, back in the day, if the last time you walked into a particular cave there was a venomous snake in it, you’d naturally develop an anxiety about going back to that area to stop you encountering that danger again.’

There are all sorts of situations that might leave you feeling a little unsure of yourself. It makes sense that you’d feel nervous before, say, a sight-reading piece on piano or a French oral exam – these are tense experiences.

But there are also times when the reason behind the nerves is less clear. Ever felt anxious when placing an order at a coffee bar? What about making a phone call, or putting your hand up in class? Rationally, these are fairly low-key tasks – but in the moment, they can feel overwhelming.

You might notice some physical symptoms – a warm face, a dry mouth or pins and needles in your arms and legs. Perhaps you feel shaky or even find it hard to breathe normally. Maybe you blush or become restless and fidgety.

Why feeling anxious now and then is perfectly normal

Anxiety around interactions can sometimes come from a fear of slipping up and wanting to do or say the ‘right’ thing. In the distant past, social exclusion was also a threat to survival, which is why it’s so common to be wary of someone thinking badly of you.

Speaking up in class may make you nervous that you’ll make a mistake and classmates will laugh. Making a phone call may be alarming because you can’t predict how the person on the other end will react to what you say. There’s a sense of the unknown that’s anxiety-inducing for many.

There are all kinds of coping strategies to try, but it’s also worth remembering that almost everyone feels anxious occasionally – it’s part of being alive. Next time you notice your fears mounting, why not be honest with the people around you? Your vulnerability might even help someone else share their worries. To update an old saying: an anxiety shared is an anxiety halved.

What are some easy actions to help manage your anxiety?

Take deep breaths: Breathing deeply sends a message to your body that you’re safe – and that you can relax.

Acknowledge the feeling: Don’t ignore your anxious thoughts. ‘Trying to brush our feelings to one side rarely works,’ says Natasha. ‘Our brains tend to think we haven’t received the message and will turn up the dial on our anxiety to get our attention.’

Write it down: Natasha says: ‘I’d recommend writing down what you’re worried will happen. Some of your fears might be completely unfounded, others might be reasonable. If it’s the latter, you can make a plan for what you’ll do if that scenario arises.’

Draw it out: Not a writer? Grab some paper and a felt-tip pen instead. ‘Drawing your concerns will let your brain know it’s been heard, and you’ll probably find the anxiety starts to lessen,’ says Natasha.

Share your thoughts: It can be scary to admit how you’re feeling to friends and family, but being honest might encourage someone else to open up.

Make a mantra: Repeating an encouraging phrase helps move your thoughts into a more positive space. It might be helpful to recite something empowering and kind, such as: ‘Whatever happens, I can handle this.’

If social anxiety is stopping you from living your life in the way you’d like, speak to a trusted adult or book an appointment with your GP. You can also access support online at youngminds.org.uk

Read more about mental health and wellbeing in Teen Breathe issue 43.