For those with social anxiety disorder (SAD), being in a social situation can be terrifying. Exposure therapy is one of the commonly used tools to help someone face and overcome their fears. This type of therapy is based on the premise that you can get used to anything if you face it often enough and that once you are used to it, your fear subsides. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should face your fears head-on. Instead, building up slowly works best. Start with something that is only mildly fearful and once you feel comfortable with this step, move on to something a little harder.
The following is an example of a DIY exposure exercise for those who have anxiety when in social situations.
Smile and say hello to someone. This could be a cashier at the store, a person standing near you on the street or in an elevator or a coworker you don’t know. Make a goal to smile and say hello to one person you do not know sometime during the day. Be sure to make eye contact.
Ask someone for the time or directions. While walking down the street or in the mall, stop someone and ask for the time or directions.
Give someone a compliment. Pay attention to the people around you and give a compliment about something you like or admire. You might think someone’s necklace is pretty or notice a coworker’s new haircut. Make sure your compliment is sincere.
Return something or make a complaint. Buy something from a store and then return the item. Many times these small conflicts cause a great deal of anxiety.
Make small talk with someone. There are probably many opportunities in your day to make small talk. You might ride the elevator, take the train or stand in line at the grocery store. Whenever you find yourself standing next to someone, talk about the weather, the long lines, the traffic, a news event. The topic doesn’t matter, the point is to initiate a short conversation.
Keep the conversation going for a few minutes. Now that you made small talk with someone, try to keep the conversation going. Start with small talk and initiate a second topic.
Initiate a conversation with a coworker or someone you see on a regular basis. You might start by talking about the weekend, someone’s recent vacation or a project at work. The easiest way to start a conversation is by asking questions about the other person.
Join a conversation. During a work break or at a social event, join in a conversation. Start by listening to the conversation so you know what is being discussed. Make eye contact with one or two people and wait for a break in the conversation to join. Start with something like, “I heard you talking about” That is interesting." Then add a comment. Or, "I heard you talking about…Do you mind if I ask a question?" Then ask for more information on something someone said.
Initiate getting together. You might ask a coworker to join you at lunch, go get a cup of coffee . You might call a friend and ask if she would like to go to a movie or go out to dinner. You might ask a neighbor to join you for an evening walk.
Join a group event. You might accept an invitation to a party or social event or go out to lunch with several coworkers. Look for opportunities to join in a group of people in a social setting. If you can’t find any opportunities, make your own by inviting several coworkers to go out to lunch or have several neighbors take a walk together after dinner.
Throw a party. Invite a few friends to your home for a get-together. It doesn’t need to be a large party, a few people will get you used to entertaining people in your home.
Remember, for exposure therapy to work, you should go slow. Stay at one step for as long as you need to feel comfortable. However, don’t drag out the time in between steps because you are afraid to move on to the next step.
Use the previous steps as an example. Your steps might be different based on your situation. Customize the steps to make it beneficial to you; for example, you might not have any difficulty saying hello to someone but might find it extremely difficult to return an item to the store. Exposure therapy works best when it is centered around your fears.
If you find this process difficult or do not feel you are able to move from one step to the next, talk with a therapist. You might need additional support as you move through the steps.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.