Have you ever arrived at a party only to feel a nervous flutter in your stomach? Maybe you’re worried about saying something silly or not having anything to say at all? For many of us, social gatherings cause a bit of anxiety. This anxiety can range from severe (such as panic attacks or avoidance of social situations) to minor nerves and discomfort.
As we look ahead to easing restrictions, larger social gatherings, and busier venues, you may be wondering,
“Do I remember how to be around people?”
What is social anxiety?
At its core, social anxiety happens from “the prospect or presence of interpersonal evaluation in real or imagined social settings” (Schlenker & Leary). Essentially, social anxiety is a feeling of concern related to other people’s evaluations of you. For example, this can be mild stage fright when public speaking to a fear of grocery shopping.
A small amount of social anxiety is normal. After all, social connection is an essential survival need programmed into our being. We need to feel like we’re part of our community for safety. We’re social beings, and being worried about rejection from the “herd” is a legitimate worry.
How does social anxiety affect our brains and bodies?
I talk a lot about the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn response. This response is our body trying to protect itself from danger or what it perceives as danger. We refer to this as our stress response.
To truly understand stress and its impact on the body, we need to know about the vagus nerve. This powerhouse of a nerve is a control system in the brain connected to numerous parts of your body, including your heart, gut, lungs, genitals, and more. When we’re stressed, this nerve is what jumps into the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. It causes our heart to race and our lungs to take quick rapid breaths in preparation for action. The problem with this is that when our vagus nerve is activated in this way, we’re not in social engagement and connection mode.
However, when we can relax and calm our bodies (which I will give tips for at the end of this post), our vagus nerve can make us better social beings. As an example, the vagus nerve is connected to the muscles in the face and voice, making us sound more approachable and look more authentic and relaxed. Similarly, our hearing actually improves when we’re relaxed. In this peaceful and open state, we can connect, plan for the future, remember details, and problem solve.
What can you do to reduce social anxiety?
Now that you know about the vagus nerve and its role in stress and social connection, you may be wondering how you can calm your vagus nerve if you’re nervous about a social situation.
When a vagus nerve is prone to stress and bad at relaxing, we refer to this as poor vagal tone. Alternatively, if you’re good at calming your nerves and returning to a relaxed and open place after a normal and healthy stress response, this is referred to as a high vagal tone. The good news: you can train your vagus nerve and get to a high vagal tone.
Here are a few ways to reduce social anxiety and return your vagus nerve to a relaxed state:
1. Deep breathing. Deep, controlled breathing signals to your body that the threat has passed and returns your mind to the present moment.
2. Meditation. Much like deep breathing, meditation allows us to focus on the present and disrupt our busy worrying brains.
4. Get outside. Nature can have a profound calming effect on our nervous system.
5. Exercise. Movement stimulates gut function and can help reduce gut-related tension and stress, relaxing the vagus nerve.
6. Keep a healthy diet. Make sure you monitor your gut bacteria. Eating a diet high in sugar can cultivate unhealthy bacteria growth in your digestive tract, and gut health is directly linked to our brain and body health.
7. Get enough sleep. Sleep allows the body to relax and repair itself. For some people, chronic stress means significant gut and bowel issues. Rest and sleep become the only times when their system can relax and digest their food properly. Get enough sleep to help your system reset and recharge.
8. Put down your phone! We may think we’re accomplishing our social connection needs through social media and screens, but in many ways, this actually creates more stress and self-judgment. Some forms of technology CAN help us connect in a healthy way, such as FaceTiming a loved one. To learn more about healthy and unhealthy tech solutions, pick up a copy of my new book, The Tech Solution.
Remember, having nerves when entering an unfamiliar social situation is perfectly normal. Likewise, having a bit of nervousness when entering familiar social situations is normal. If you’re feeling a little on edge thinking about that first dinner party or music festival, you’re not alone. We’re all a little rusty. However, if your fear of social interaction is causing you extreme stress, it may be time to speak to a professional. Please reach out, and let’s see how we can develop a plan to reduce some of this social anxiety and help you create healthy, lasting social connections. Contact me today.