September 4, 2010

How to reduce social anxiety and expand your social circle

As noted in a recent post, an inadequate social life may be as detrimental to your health as smoking, alcoholism and obesity. This is serious stuff. For those of us who are conscious of healthy living and extending our healthy lifespans, social disconnection needs to be taken as seriously as any other risk factor.

And this may hold particularly true for our community, that of the futurist sci-tech crowd, many of whom are too buried in their work and/or socially awkward (yes, Aspies, I'm talking to you). So, if you're finding it hard to get out and meet people, there are things you can do to remedy the situation.

Dealing with social anxiety

Now, before I get into it, I realize that for many people expanding a social circle is easier said than done. Social anxiety, severe introversion and shyness are serious things. If you suffer from these problems, I suggest the following:
  • Role playing: As silly as it may sound, you may wish to start roll playing all by yourself. Or recruit a friend or family member and practice various social scenarios with them. You'll be amazed at how this kind of pre-visualization helps.
  • Work within your skill-set: There's no need to completely reinvent yourself. Just remember your strengths and good qualities and work with them. Be sure to operate in social contexts that are familiar and nonthreatening to you.
  • Make good eye contact: Practice good eye contact. And that doesn't mean staring. As a rule of thumb, a natural range of eye contact is between 30% to 60% of the time during a conversation. As for you Aspies and Autistics, I know this is physically painful, but practice and regularity will ease the discomfort.
  • Have topics ready to discuss: If you're particularly anxious about the conversation itself, be prepared to have a dialogue ready. Make sure your topics are contextually appropriate and interesting, and that you deliver them in a seamless way (i.e. not as non-sequitors).
  • Introduce yourself to a stranger: Again, if you're going to approach a stranger, be sure that it's contextually appropriate and that you don't come off as being creepy. Put a smile on your face, introduce yourself, and inject a topic that is consistent with the setting (e.g. "Wow, it's taking forever for the bus to show up today"). The more you do it, the easier it will get.
  • Learn social skills: If you're feeling particular helpless, you can sign-up for an assertiveness training class. Community colleges, centers and adult learning facilities often offer free and low-cost classes. Alternatively, you can join an improv class.
  • Join a local or online support group: Find forums or classes where other social phobics can get together and share in their struggles and breakthroughs.
Failing this, you may wish to seek professional help; counselors and mental health professionals can help you with your social phobia with talk therapy, medication, and other techniques.

Expanding your social circle

Many of us take our friends and family for granted. We also take our social skills for granted, rarely thinking about the processes required to create and maintain our social circles. Assuming you're starting from scratch (e.g. you've moved to a new city, or you're overcoming social anxiety), there are some things you can do to start your very own social group:
  • Work with what you have: Do you have family that lives nearby? If so, you may want to increase your contact with them, especially if you're having trouble meeting and making new friends. This includes not just immediate family, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins. And if you already have a friend or two, be sure to treasure and foster those relationships. You may even want to get to know friends of your friends, and even their family members. Lastly, if you have online friends who live in the area (e.g. through Facebook, Twitter or chat sites), be sure to organize a meet-up. If this is too much too soon, set-up a video chat as an intermediary step to meeting in person.
  • Pursue your passions in a social setting: You will stand a far better chance of meeting new friends when (1) you're in a setting that you're passionate about and comfortable in, (2) you're seen as someone who clearly has a specific interest and skill, and (3) you're surrounded with like-minded individuals. At the very least, you'll have fun doing what you love doing. Ideas include sports, public speaking, politics, games, crafts and so on.
  • Organize!: Why wait for someone else to organize something when you can? Create a meetup online. Help a friend set-up a party. Create a new group and schedule get-togethers. There's lots you can do, here.
  • Be the fun guy/gal: This might take you a bit out of your comfort zone, but it's important that you come across as being a genuinely fun, happy, and interesting person. Ultimately, you want to make people feel good when they're around you. If you project positive qualities, those around you will suck it up like a sponge and continue to want to hang out with you.
  • Make an effort: All of this advice will be for naught if you don't actively pursue friendships. Go into these settings with the mindset that you will meet new people. Approach strangers and introduce yourself. Build on familiarity and take it to the next stage by inviting your new acquaintances to alternative venues, like a bar or sporting event. Failing that, learn to enjoy the company of others in these settings. Remember, the goal here is to reduce the ill effects of social isolation.
As a last piece of advice, realize that there are a lot of people out there who would be happy to know you. Borrowing an axiom from the dating world, just remember that there are plenty of fish in the sea. Moreover, people are, for the most part, genuinely nice and well intentioned. Creating or increasing a social circle takes time, patience and persistence, but the payoffs are certainly well worth it. Your efforts will undoubtedly translate to positive and formative experiences.


Unknown said...

I have read something about this pertinent study about health and social life elsewhere, and, as far as I understood, the authors said, they do *not* know whether lack of social contacts is a *cause* of bad health. There is just a statistical correlation between lack of social contacts and bad health occuring together, but they know of *no* relationship between cause and effect. It may be the case, that there is a "third" factor causing both effects.

Because of this, it is wrong calling "social disconnection" a "risk factor" -- a *factor* would be a *cause*.

And, again, because of this, we just do not know, whether pertinent advices -- you mentioned some -- will lead to better health.

Over and above that, there are social circles which are dangerous for health, e.g. joining a gang is not healthy for young males.

Anonymous said...

...Like, say, low self-esteem both causes people to be alone and shortens their lifespan. Or chronic depression. Or something. Or maybe being alone causes something like that, and that thing causes shorter lifespans, but people who are happy to be alone get by just fine. You never can tell, can you?

@Duncan: It's not safe to be a young male in a gang-infested environment whether you're a member or not, so it's hard to say which is worse on the average. A better example would be a suicide cult.