A crowd of people, a trigger for social anxiety. Image by freeimages.com

Managing Social Anxiety (and Other Language Learning Tips)

I write this in the middle of a minor battle on a packed train. A battle, that is, between me and my anxiety.

Like many people – no doubt pounded into a cowering stance by the chaotic onslaught of daily life – I so deal with heightened social anxiety on a fairly regular basis, with the panic monster rearing its head in some particular trigger situations.

For me, train travel is the perfect storm – which is ironic, given how much of it I do. It’s a fear of a lack of control in those scenarios where you end up herded like cattle in an every-person-for-themselves throng when train services are cancelled, delayed or otherwise packed like sardines, cheek to cheek with sometimes very unsympathetic humans. The fact that it happens with a depressingly increasing frequency in the UK lately doesn’t help one bit.

But, I have a choice. Find ways to manage it, or stop travelling. And I certainly don’t want the latter.

So manage it, I do. The thing is, the ways I cope with my social anxiety are also pretty nifty, general tools for tackling other things people get anxious about – including speaking a foreign language. Did I mention that I was a shy linguist too?

Situational Engineering

The first thing to recognise is that you do have power – the power of choice.

When planning any kind of advance into the social world, we often have options. With trains, for example, I can choose services that begin at my point of departure (rather than arriving from elsewhere first, already stuffed with people). By choosing those, I’m in a sense engineering the situation to minimise the most anxiety-inducing elements of it.

Doing so requires a bit of introspection first, probings the whats and whys of why we get anxious. What are you worried about? Is that actually masking a deeper, more general fear? And what elements of the situation can you tweak to lessen your exposure to this fear? When you hit on that, you’ve found a way to win back some control and confidence.


That said, a whole solution shouldn’t simply be all about avoidance. Facing our fears is the basis of exposure therapy, for example, and making them regular encounters can go some way to robbing them of their power. But the simple fact is that tackling scary or challenging situations is a chore at best, and terrifying at worst. One way to sweeten this burden? Reward yourself for it.

In the case of my train travel anxiety, I started a little phone note with the title Be Brave to Save. In it, I write down every instance where I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to back down, either by abandoning a trip, buying a new ticket, or paying for an upgrade to make things less socially uncomfortable for myself. Each time, I record how much money my little act of self-bravery saved me. At the end of the month, you know exactly what I’m spending that on.

Try setting yourself bravery goals like this in your language travails. Think ‘inverse swear jar‘, and devise some system to reward the behaviour you want to encourage in yourself. Plucked up the courage to do a face-to-face iTalki lesson? Pop a pound in a pot. Steeled yourself to turn up to a language cafe event at your local pub? Give yourself a star, and tot them up at the end to decide your prize.

Facing your fears is hard; reward yourself for it, you hero.

Fellow humans, not adversaries

Feeling anxious very much locks you inside your own head. It’s an overwhelming sensation that takes over your actions and reactions. At a point, it starts to reinforce itself, to the exclusion of everything reassuring you could be noticing outside of yourself.

In these moments, I find it helpful to refocus to what is outside. I try to remember that the objects of my anxiety – other humans – are mostly not that different from me. In fact, they might even be feeling the same way I am, but, also like me, completely expert at hiding it. To break that wall, I dare myself to build a bridge, however small. I make eye contact. I smile wearily at other passengers squeezed into the same tiny spaces. And (cringe) I’ll make corny, oft-repeated traveller remarks about sardines. It almost always re-humanises the situation, and signals – to you and others – that you’re all in together, and not rival players.

Know you’re not alone. Some situations, like travel chaos, or public interaction and performance, are almost universal triggers for a heightened emotional state. There are a hundred similar battles taking place simultaneously in the heads of others around you, on all sorts of scales.

Phone a Friend

Of course, sometimes all you need is another human who does know what’s going on inside your head. Never underestimate the benefit of an understanding hand to hold, be it a friend, a fellow learner, or a mentor.

For instance, it really helps me when I have a friend to meet for a coffee before a train – and, if I’m really lucky, to walk me to the platform and wave me off. There’s just something disarming about having a friendly face next to you when you face a thorny situation. If there’s something fazing you about using your foreign languages in public, is there someone who could be there to cheerlead when you go for it?

Strengthening Your Armour

Despite all of the tips and tricks, there’s zero shame in enlisting more formal help when things get overwhelming. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy-to-access, professionally advocated techniques for minimising anxiety, either as quick support strategies or longer-term interventions. For a therapeutic tradition with a very solid body of evidence behind it, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is hard to beat.

For the more experimental, tapping is an alternative practice that aims to tackle anxious thought patterns. Tapping is, in essence, a kind of self-affirming, almost hypnotic system of repetitive phrasing paired with physical tapping of various points of the upper body. It has raised eyebrows; studies tend to ascribe its efficacy not to any physiological principle, but rather to more psychosomatic pathways. But it has been used in clinical settings to treat depression, and even piloted in some secondary schools as a mental health strategy. You can work with a practitioner, but equally try it all by yourself, with plenty of YouTube videos like this one available for the curious.

Anxiety? I Don’t Know Her

And that’s me just pulling into my station, after a potentially nerve-wrecking two-and-a-half-hours that was, actually, not that bad at all. Writing a blog post with ear buds blasting cheese was certainly a handy attention-absorber – add pleasant distractions to that list of anxiety busters!

What coping strategies do you have in place for your anxious moments? Please let us know your tips in the comments!

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