How to Engage Socially When You’re Feeling Anxious

Feeling anxious, introverted, or awkward in social situations? You're not alone. Dr. Monica Johnson, the Savvy Psychologist, gives you a few tips for calming your nerves before engaging socially.

Dr. Monica Johnson
5-minute read
Episode #385

Spring is here! We often associate this season with breaking out from the cocoon of winter and into social butterflies. This is easier for some than others. I am a proud introvert, and I usually have to prepare myself for the increase in social interactions.

You may not identify as introverted. Maybe you've been diagnosed with social anxiety, or you just feel socially awkward in general. Whatever the case may be, there are many of us that desire social interaction and closer relationships, but it doesn’t come naturally to us. In fact, many social interactions can feel threatening. For instance, a great friend of mine is getting married and I’m invited to the wedding. My first thought was, “Heck yeah, I am super happy for you!” and my second thought was “Now I have to be at a wedding where the only person I’m going to know is the bride.” This is an introvert’s nightmare. The introductions, having to remember all those names, the forced smiles, and laughter, the dreaded small talk. Suffice it to say, I and many others will read that as threatening.

What does it mean to feel threatened in social situations?

You might be wondering: what happens when we read an environment as threatening and what does that mean? Threatening doesn’t mean that it’s abusive, violent, or anything of that nature. When you struggle socially, simply saying, “Hi, I’m Terrence” to strangers can feel like doing a State of the Union address. The problem with reading these environments as threatening is it causes us to be socially disengaged. In order to bond with others, we have to socially signal that we are interested and open. When we feel uncomfortable, our body language can express the exact opposite.

When we feel socially threatened, we don't engage in prosocial signaling. Instead, if you’re like me, you may what is socially referred to as “RBF,” which I will call Resting Badass Face. In technical terms, your facial expressions become constricted. You may often have a downcast gaze or you may have a tendency to stare. Your body language is also typically tight and robotic in nature. You may speak in a monotone or flat voice. Additionally, you may more easily misinterpret what others are saying or their social cues. All of this leads to people staying away from you because you are signaling that you don't want to be bothered, when in fact your internal intention may be that you want others to talk to you and like you.

Activating your social safety system

In order to combat this, we want to activate our social safety system. We can do this through facial expressions, gestures, and body language. In the same way that we use these tools to communicate with others, we can use them to communicate with ourselves. For example, if you're in a good mood and you force yourself to frown and walk around with an angry posture, you'll notice that your mood will change over time. So, let's use that to our advantage!

The skills I'm going to talk about here are all about getting yourself to relax so that you can let go of tension and be more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors. One skill that I mentioned a few weeks ago, in episode 381, is great for this. It's called the TIP skill, and it's super helpful for relaxing the body. If you’re feeling overwhelmed prior to an event, you can use temperature to calm you down. You can do this by submerging your face in cold water or placing cold packs on your face while holding your breath. This will help to reduce your high level of emotional arousal.

If you’re reading an environment as threatening, it’s going to turn on some survival instincts that make it harder to make friends. You’re not looking to fight or flee, you want to approach and befriend. The use of temperature short circuits your fight or flight and creates space for other relaxation techniques you can use like breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation.

If you get a buzz of agitation when you’re anxious, you can also go an alternative route and implement exercise as a way to use up that energy and lead to more pleasant emotions, making it easier to signal appropriately to others.

There are many other physical sensations that our brain experiences as comforting and can help turn on our social engagement system. You can use weight blankets to reduce your overall anxiety. You can use a hot water bottle on your abdomen. You can also cuddle with a pet or ask someone you trust for a hug. You can also either self-massage or get a professional massage. If you engage in self-massage, it may be helpful to do the areas where you keep tension and are related to social signaling. For instance, you may choose to massage your face, scalp, and neck so that there is less tension in these areas. This may also make it easier to smile and or be more animated. All of these behaviors will reduce unwanted emotions and make it easier for you in the social event.

Here is a nifty tip that I learned about during the pandemic that made a lot of sense. It's called the chewing skill. Our brains associate chewing and eating with digestion and rest. Swallowing food can naturally calm the body. If you engage in emotional eating, this might help you understand why this is something humans do to cope!

Chewing also uses the same muscles in our face that are often linked with social safety and can reduce stress. How can you use this to your benefit? Well, you can have a nice meal prior to a social event. However, many skills have a cumulative effect, so it could be beneficial to make sure you are eating well on a daily basis, leading to better stress management overall. Others will also chew gum prior to an event. I have tried this out and found that it worked particularly well when I paired it with some other mindfulness skills. I noticed that my jaw wanted to be tight, but because I was chewing the gum and engaging in calming thoughts, it led to reduced tension.

Finally, you can essentially do a version of what I learned from Tyra Banks and America’s Next Top Model. She often talked about looking in a mirror and “smizing"—a.k.a. smiling with your eyes. In my version, you're practicing expansive facial expressions and gestures so you can socially signal to others. It might seem silly at first, but you want to practice tensing and relaxing your facial muscles. Next, you will want to make exaggerated facial expressions to further loosen everything up. In your body, you will want to practice stretching and making big gestures. It can be helpful to do this in front of the mirror so you can experience how it feels in your face and body and how it will read to others. I didn’t realize how angry I could appear to others until I started engaging in these sorts of activities.

As always, try these skills without judgment and see how they can be helpful to you!

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.