Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. It’s a primitive emotion, similar to fear, and its job is to help us take care of ourselves. We may feel anxious before a big job interview or a date or a test. It’s a temporary feeling and its role in those instances is to help us prepare. For some, however, anxiety is excessive — out of line with the real level of worry at hand. This can be difficult to deal with on its own.
Look at the symptoms below and imagine what it’s like to make new friends, or deal with existing friends, when you’re feeling these things.
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
- Being irritable
- Having muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep
Amanda shares what it’s like dealing with anxiety while trying to be social:
“Having anxiety is exhausting. It’s like you’re stuck in the deep end of a swimming pool forced to tread water, and all that treading rapidly drains your energy. With my incessant obsessive thoughts, I’m easily fatigued — sometimes sleeping for 14 or more hours at once…
“Due to the constant fatigue, I frequently sleep through social gatherings or have to cancel plans at the last minute, and that has led friends to believe that I’m flaky or inconsiderate. The problem is that mental illness is often deemed inexcusable. It’s acceptable to say, “I had a diabetic weak spell” or “my Crohn’s and colitis were flaring up,” but it’s never permissible to say, “My anxiety and depression acted up.”
If you’re one of those suffering from anxiety and are looking to build new friendships, fear not. It is absolutely possible with a little work and determination.
Here are three things to keep in mind:
1. Be honest about your anxiety
With yourself. Understand what does and doesn’t work for you and what you need to consider a social interaction successful. Are you someone who can only spend a certain amount of time at dinner with friends, then you have to get home to take care of yourself? That’s ok, as long as you know that about yourself.
With your friends and prospective friends. Tell them before the dinner that you’ll only be staying for a short while, for example. You don’t have to go into a ton of detail about your anxiety, but sharing what is happening sets expectations and helps your potential friends understand more about you.
2. Line up 3–4 topics to talk about in advance
One thing that can feel overwhelming to folks who have anxiety is being afraid of not having anything to talk about with someone. You can do this a few ways:
- Learn about the hobbies or interests of the people you’ll be talking to. If you’re going to a chess club, for example, you can line up a few chess-related questions or topics. If you’re going to a meetup at a local restaurant, maybe learn a little about the chef or the menu to start conversation.
- Read or listen to the news and pick a few highlights or topics you find particularly interesting. While not everyone wants to talk politics, which dominates a lot of news today, there are many topics to choose from that may seem more neutral like weather or local events or sports.
- Think about things that interest you, like authors you like to read or hobbies or your favorite sports teams. Other people like those topics, too. Even though you may not know what your potential new friends like, starting a conversation about something you like is a great way to feel comfortable and share a little bit about yourself.
3. Practice talking to people
With strangers you’ll never see again, like the person in front of you in line at the coffee shop or the person in the seat next to you on the bus. Talk to them about the topics you like (see number 2).
Role play with a trusted friend or family member with strong social skills. And ask them to give you feedback about areas where you are doing well and areas for improvement.
As you look for new friends, also consider quality over quantity. When you’re struggling to make new friends, it can seem like everyone except you has a long list of contacts and friends and a huge cadre of Facebook followers. That isn’t usually true, it just feels that way from the outside.
And there is no need to force yourself to have scores of friends if you really only want to hang out with a few people. The right number of friends is the right number for you — not a predetermined number that we all must have. It’s ok to have just a few friends you feel comfortable with.