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How to Talk to Strangers When You Feel Crippled With Social Anxiety

How to Talk to Strangers When You Feel Crippled With Social Anxiety
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Imagine being able to talk to strangers without the shakes, or being able to walk into a party cooler, calmer and more collected instead of a sweaty bundle of nerves…

Does that sound like a dream come true?

This article offers some key tips for easing the anxiety that comes with talking to strangers in a social setting. Tips on how to talk to strangers that will leave you feeling more calm and less crippled.

How I used to have a racing heart and sweating palms

In high school, I had a friend who could talk to anyone. It did not matter where we were. We could be at a small gathering or a large party and she would strike up a conversation with perfect strangers. I was always jealous of her ability to talk to people she did not know with such ease.

She was an extrovert at heart. And being able to talk to strangers was not something that made her heart race or her palms get sweaty. She just went into action and morphed into a social butterfly.

Then there was me — quiet, not to be confused with shy, but rather a bit more “cocooned” and reserved. When it came to making small talk with strangers, I’d become a bumbling, rambling fool. With my heart racing and my palms sweating, I would feel myself shrinking as I searched for things to say.

So instead of flitting around the room, pollenating conversations, I would stand in the corner and hold up the wall.

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Come to find out I was just an introvert who was not great at small talk.

So while I do not suffer from social anxiety, I do get how the thought of talking with strangers causes heart palpitations and the sweats. To this very day I still get a little “twitchy” before going to social functions where I may not know many people.

But here is the deal, whether you have social anxiety or you are an introvert who does not do well with small talk, there are some easy ways to lower the anxiety and sweat levels. Ways that support you in navigating those social settings and talking to strangers with a bit more ease.

How to lower anxiety and talk to strangers

Social anxiety or the anxious feelings we get when it comes to talking to strangers is real. Regardless of the reasons we get anxious, here are some easy and helpful things we can do to lower the anxiety:

1. Own it, rather than judge it.

Judging yourself only tells the brain that there is something wrong with you. Since your brain takes cues from you as to what is real and what is not, your brain will provide you with all sorts of evidence to support your thoughts, which in turn leads to more anxiety.

Rather than judging yourself for having angst when it comes to talking to strangers, try owning it. For example, “I get anxious when I talk to strangers.” as opposed to, “What is wrong with me that I can’t talk to strangers without getting anxious?”

2. Be you.

Similar to owning the anxiety is just being you. Want to talk about adding to the anxiety; try being someone you are not in a social setting.

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“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” ― Brené Brown

Here’s the thing, authenticity is expansive. It gives us the space to be who we are in those social settings that make us nervous.

I think back to my friend in high school. I tried to be her and I failed at it which only created more angst in social situations. Had I just taken a couple of deep breathes and been myself, I am pretty certain I would have been less anxious and rambling.

3. Deep breaths.

Speaking of deep breaths, try taking a few before you enter any situation where you are going to be surrounded by people you do not know. The bottom line, when we are anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid so we are not getting enough oxygen. Not enough oxygen feeds anxiety and panic.

Deep breathing doesn’t just provide more oxygen to our brains but also calms down our nervous system.

Take a look at these 5 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety (Simple and Calm Anxiety Quickly).

4. Be curious.

Try going into the social setting and be curious about the people you are going to meet. I wonder what I’m going to learn?”

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Like authenticity, curiosity is also expansive. When anxiety has you shutting down, use some curiosity to open up the possibilities.

5. Come up with some questions in advance.

The best way to engage curiosity is with some questions. When anxiety gets the better of you, it may be difficult to come up with some questions to ask someone you are meeting for the first time.

Prepare some in advance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having some pre-scripted questions to help ease the social anxiety and get the conversations going. For example:

  • “Where are you from originally?”
  • “What’s the coolest thing you have ever done?”
  • “What’s one thing you love to do every day?”

6. Address the Boogie Man under the bed.

What scares you most about talking to strangers? If you shine a light on the biggest, scariest fear you have, you diminish the fear a bit and the anxiety that goes along with it.

Give the “What If…Then What” exercise a try. For example, “What if people think I’m weird?” or “What if I don’t know what to say?”

Once you have your answer, then ask yourself this follow-up question,“Then what would happen?” Keep asking the follow-up question until you have run out of “then what’s”. This is similar to the 5-why problem solving technique.

7. Set a goal and celebrate.

Celebrating the goal completed is an important part. You are re-training your brain to see social events with strangers as a positive, as opposed to a negative. So before the social event, set a goal for yourself. For example, initiating a conversation with one person you do not know.

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Once you accomplish the goal, do something to celebrate. (FUN IDEA ALERT: I love to have my clients create what I call a “Celebration Box”, which makes celebrating fun and a “no-brainer”. This requires a box that you are welcome to decorate and slips of paper with “celebratory-type” items and activities written on them. Put the slips of paper in the box and once you complete your goal, pull a slip of paper from the box. Then do whatever that slip of paper says.)

8. Carry a “security blanket” with you.

Does this sound silly? I promise it is not. During my first year of coaching, to help me calm my nerves, I used to hold a heart-shaped rose quartz crystal in my hand during each call. Just having that crystal created a sense of calmness and made it easier for me to coach.

Pick out something small that symbolizes “calm”. Something that you can carry in your pocket, wear or indiscreetly hold in your hand. A crystal or a pendant on a bracelet that says “breathe”. A tiny piece of Play Doh or Silly Putty that you can squeeze works too.

9. Tell a friend and take them with you.

Having back-up support is helpful when it comes to anxiety. A friend that is in the know can be supportive and their active participation in the conversations takes the pressure off.

Taking the anxiety down a notch

While being a social butterfly may not be your thing, here are few keys to lowering your social anxiety. Keys to taking that anxiety down just a notch.

  1. Recognize that social anxiety is real.
  2. Try not to judge yourself for having it.
  3. Commit to doing something that makes talking to strangers easier.
  4. Try different calming exercises until you find the ones that work best for you.

“Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.” – Walter Anderson

At the end of the day, you are so much stronger than your social anxiety makes you feel when you start doing something about it.

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Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

More by this author

Pam Thomas

Chief Change Officer @What's Within U; Helping people dig out from the ruts that keep them stuck personally and professionally.

How to Stop Worrying About the Future: 8 Practical Techniques How to Develop a Lifelong Learning Habit How to Talk to Strangers When You Feel Crippled With Social Anxiety Writing Journal for a Better and More Productive Self (The How-To Guide)

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)
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You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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