How To Eliminate Approach Anxiety
By: Patricia Oelze
Updated January 22, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P
It happens to everybody. You're about to go and introduce yourself to someone, and you freeze. Your brain goes into overdrive, and you start to panic: What do I say? What will they think? What if I say the wrong thing? Will I end up embarrassing myself? This is a phenomenon known as approach anxiety.
Approach anxiety is an irrational fear which can stop you from engaging in conversation with strangers. It causes you to overthink and therefore, fear most interactions. The root of the issue can stem from inexperience, low self-esteem, past negative experiences, or the overall inability to turn off the racing thoughts in our head. While approach anxiety usually used in regards to relationships and dating world, it can be applied to a large majority of social circumstances as well.
Why do we feel approach anxiety?
We are hardwired to believe that first impressions are everything even if that's not necessarily true. That puts a lot of pressure on us to respond in a way that we deem appropriate when first meeting someone when in reality we have no idea what the other person would deem "the right way." We are presenting ourselves to someone that we are interested in, so it makes sense that we want to show our best side. However, you want to keep in mind that having anxiety about what might happen during these interactions is more likely cause your worst fear to come true.
We must recognize that approach anxiety is a completely normal human response to a situation we deem to be high-pressured. It occurs when we over-think the potential outcome of interaction and blow it out of proportion in our minds. The fear of the unknown is a great motivator to do and to not do certain things, and in the case of approach anxiety, it is causing us not to do something. Therefore, we are closing ourselves off to potentially life-to change connections by listening to the emotional side of our brain versus the rational one.
Fortunately, approach anxiety is a self-created phenomenon. It is a psychological barrier which we have put in place. This means that because we're the ones who created it, we're the ones who can stop it. Psychological hurdles only become real if we allow them to. When we feel approach anxiety, our irrational brains are assuming the worst possible outcome of a situation. We are letting our insecurities, and our nervousness be the guiding narrators of our story.
As mentioned above, there are many reasons why we may feel this anxiety. Getting to the root of the anxiety will be an important step in eliminating this anxiety. If you are struggling with low self-esteem, it's possible that the negative self-talk you're engaging in is causing you to believe that you are not interesting enough, good looking enough, or worthy to form a connection with a love interest. You may have gone through a past relationship that ended poorly, and you struggle to realize that each interaction needs to be taken for what it is and not apply past situations to the present. Regardless of the reason, there are tangible skills that you can implement to address this issue so you can greatly reduce your approach anxiety.
Eliminating approach anxiety
There is a lot of 'advice' out there which focuses on 'removing' approach anxiety as a psychological obstacle, but in reality, approach anxiety isn't a problem. Approach anxiety will be a part of our lives for the duration - it can't be 'removed.' We still feel nervous about things we've done thousands of times, and this is no different for starting conversations with new people. Being anxious isn't a negative thing. It is simply an emotion that we feel. One might even argue that being nervous about something means that you care and can be viewed in a positive light. However, the behavior that we engage in as a result of our anxiety is what can become problematic.
However, approach anxiety can be learned to be controlled through rational thinking. Before we go into a situation that might trigger this anxiety, we should ask ourselves what evidence we have that suggests this interaction will be terrible. For example, when we approach someone new, there's a high chance that the other person welcomes our conversation. Think of a time a stranger approached you, whether it be for friendship, romantic or professional purposes. You were probably happy to converse with that person. The worst case scenario is that the person doesn't connect with you and while that can be difficult to accept, you also want to be with someone who is equally as interested in you as you are in them. Also, there doesn't need to be any sort of expectations when you first meet someone. Being mindful and living in the moment can help you address your anxiety as well as manage your expectations.
When we feel approach anxiety, we are overestimating our value. The interaction which will take place between you and your chosen person will be just that; a brief interaction. When the interaction ceases, you and the other person will inevitably continue with your lives regardless of the outcome. If we pump up these interactions in our head, we'll feel like they're much more momentous than they are. While rejection doesn't feel good, it can make us stronger to see that we can be okay and continue our lives in the unlikely event that our worst case scenario happens.
Think about what exactly it is you're doing when you approach a person. You have simply started a conversation with a stranger in an attempt to get to know them better. It is not a situation worth worrying over. It sometimes helps to put the potential interaction into perspective. Compare your interactions to actual problems people face; poverty, illness, losing loved ones- these are real issues which warrant genuine anxiety and concern. Making small talk with someone isn't one of these things, so there's no need to fear something that won't be a part of your life a month from now.
There are a lot more reasons to converse with someone new than there is to not. Once we realize our fears are unnecessary, it will allow us to become more confident in ourselves. Approach anxiety will undoubtedly rear its head from time to time, but understand that it's perfectly normal and work around it instead of judging yourself harshly for not being able to "get over it." When you first meet someone, they're not rejecting you because they don't even know you. Your value as a person is not based on a brief interaction that you have with someone.
If you have implemented these skills and still find that you are struggling with anxious thoughts when it comes to social situations, you should speak to a licensed therapist who can work with you to develop a treatment plan to address this issue. BetterHelp can provide you with a therapist who has experience working with clients who have dealt with similar issues.
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