The expert technique that can really help tame social anxiety

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  • After coming out on YouTube, Daniel Howell now has a bestselling mental health book. Here he discusses what to do if you're struggling

    Daniel Howell says he didn’t take a blind bit of notice to his mental heath for 28 years, now he’s 30 it’s fair to say a lot has changed in the last couple of years. His struggles with his mental wellbeing, coming out and being gay is well documented on his YouTube channel. Now with his practical mental health guide, You Will Get Through This Night, Howell hopes he can help people find the advice they need with his honest, relatable and accessible problem-solving style. In this extract, Daniel tackles social anxiety, a big issue for many of us as restrictions ease.

    Daniel on social anxiety 

    It’s common for all of us to experience ‘acute’ anxiety in social situations, if we’re new or nervous – but there is an elevated state of social anxiety which is technically classed as a disorder (social anxiety disorder or social phobia). This too can be common, often appearing when you’re an awkward gangly adolescent, but too many of us don’t recognise that this anxiety is a common problem and just assume we are defective. There is a difference between being generally awkward, and having social anxiety.

    I’m the first person to admit every awkward thing that’s ever happened, such as recently when I said ‘after you’ to an elderly neighbour in a lift and proceeded to press the ‘close’ button instead of holding the door open and suddenly almost crushing them. Much to the horror and amusement of my fellow neighbours. I share this as not only does it help me vent, but apparently people like to laugh at my pain.

    social anxiety

    Daniel Howell

    It’s okay to enjoy relating to others’ socially inept moments, but we should never glamorise or celebrate real anxiety. It’s not a personality trait; if it is seriously holding you back in life, you have a problem. But there are things you can do about it. The main feature of proper social anxiety is the fear of embarrassment and judgement. It’s not just being nervous of public speaking, but an all-encompassing feeling that can lead people to struggle in basic social situations or avoid them totally out of fear. The good news is that it can be easily managed.

    Taming social anxiety

    • Social anxiety thrives on avoidance: So try not to avoid the social situations that bring you fear. When you join these situations, try not to hide behind any walls of humour or quietness, just be you.

    • Test out your predictions: If you predict you’ll screw up a presentation, go redder than a flaming tomato, and everyone will laugh, that’s a testable hypothesis which you may learn from or prove wrong.

    • In socially-anxious situations, our attention turns inwardly on ourselves: Such as, concentrating more on how sweaty we may look than the reality of the situation and what others are thinking. Try to be present, focusing on your surroundings, and the anxiety may fade away.

    • Remember that in the real world, the older you get the less likely people will be to laugh at social incidents, unless they’re assholes: Don’t default to fears from your past, let people surprise you with their kindness – and if not fuck ’em.

    If your fear of being judged in a social environment is holding you back from basically functioning daily, or stopping you from doing things you enjoy, it may be that your anxiety has tipped into social phobia – consider seeing a professional to discuss therapies that can help you overcome this anxiety so you can start to enjoy social situations rather than fear them.

    By using our senses (reminder, because I went blank and needed one: taste, touch, smell, sight and sound) we can ground ourselves, and from focusing on our surroundings, distract from worrying thoughts and instead feel comfortable just vibing in the moment. I’m someone that is guilty of spending too much time ‘in my head’, and in the process I imagine myself looking dazed, sitting with my eyes open as my mind races between things I regret and what could go wrong ahead of me.

    Either constantly feeling woeful about some distant decision, like taking out a hefty student loan only to drop out of Law School to pursue comedy. Or worrying about a crisis in the future, like if one day I will stop being funny, and wish that I’d pursued a more reliable career in Law. Remembering to ground myself, be present and spend more time enjoying the world around me, rather than ignoring it and living in a cloud of my own thoughts, is an essential skill.

    This technique isn’t about distracting yourself, though, or about calming an overactive thinker – it’s about just learning to be calm in the present, without your thoughts taking your focus, empowering you to take control. Like with breathing, you can do this anytime, any place, but there’s no time like the present.

    Bringing your mind back to the present

    This is great technique if you are feeling quite distressed, and need to quickly bring yourself back down to earth. You can combine your senses with a focused countdown to simplify your thoughts and ground yourself quickly, acknowledging each sense with more attention, counting down to calm.

    Try this 5-4-3-2-1 technique 

    Good for: Dealing with overwhelming anxiety
    • Stopping thoughts spinning
    • Calming down quickly

    Before you begin, take a couple of deep slow breaths so you feel ready to relax, then start tuning into each of your senses.

    5 – acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. Take time to notice your immediate area. What colours and shapes do you see? What textures are the materials? What small details like reflections of light do you see? Focus on each of these things.

    4 – acknowledge FOUR things you can touch. These could be your feet in your socks, a ring on your finger, the firmness of a seat, or the texture of your clothes against your skin. Try picking up an object and exploring its weight and texture.

    3 – acknowledge THREE things you hear. These might be sounds close to you, like a clock ticking, or far away, like traffic. Really try to tune in to sounds that your mind has tuned out. Don’t judge these sounds and worry about them, just recognise them.

    2 – acknowledge TWO things you can smell in the air around you. If you can’t smell anything, bring to mind two of your favourite smells, or tune in to very subtle fragrances, even the scent of your own skin.

    1 – acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. This might be gum, or even your own tongue (hopefully you’ve made good non-fermented choices). If you can’t taste anything, try to imagine the taste of one of your favourite meals. Take another nice slow, deep breath into your stomach and notice the relaxation it brings. Repeat this process as many times as you like. Each time you do it, notice how you feel afterwards.

    This may seem slightly intense or silly, if you’re feeling fine and don’t need it. But if you do need a quick fix to calm yourself down, this focused way to concentrate on your senses can get you there with speed.

    * You Will Get Through This Night by Daniel Howell is available now in hardback, eBook and audio download (HQ)

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