“Eye contact is way more intimate than words will ever be”
Eye contact is an incredibly important part of human interaction and communication.
Facial expressions, especially those in and around the eyes can tell you more about how a person is feeling than almost any other part of their body language.
Be it in a brief encounter with a stranger, or a deep and meaningful conversation with a loved one, when your eyes meet with another’s, this is when you experience that real connection that no words can replicate.
Being able to look at someone and to enjoy the interaction is something we should all look forward to, it should not leave you feeling self conscious and on edge.
So if your social anxiety is making you not enjoy or even avoid interacting with the people around you, it is likely you are missing out on the joy of human interaction and the opportunities it brings.
Instead you are left feeling anxious and withdrawn, looking for any way to cope when the next encounter begins.
If severe, it may even trigger your panic response and leave you feeling that the only way to deal with it is to avoid other people as much as possible.
However, if your day to day life requires interaction with others, complete avoidance is never really an option.
Instead it is likely you have tried a number of coping techniques.
If so, some of the following may sound familiar:
- When on a bus or train you stare out the window and avoid looking around at other passengers
- When in a doctors surgery you quickly pick up a magazine or get your phone out, just so that you can take your focus off others in the room
- When someone does catch your glance you quickly look away and never look back
So do these help you?
It may feel like they do, because they enable you to keep your feelings of anxiety and panic at just below an unmanageable level.
Do they help you to reduce your anxiety so that you feel more relaxed when you are next in a similar situation?
No, they only ‘help’ for that brief period of time. In fact all they are doing is reinforcing your behaviour of avoidance, that to remain calm you must not look at people and so you try to avoid any unnecessary interactions.
The problem with this is twofold:
- You will always feel anxious and on edge whenever you are around people and never feel free from your social anxiety
- When in a situation where you cannot use an avoidance technique your anxiety will become unbearable and often trigger a panic attack. This then leads to the total avoidance of these situations and so the belief that avoidance behaviour is the way to deal with anxiety is ingrained further.
How do most people try and cope?
Despite the two problems mentioned above, when I did a little reading through forums and articles aimed at helping people, they all seemed to come back with the same advice. It all centred around ideas and ways to distract yourself and avoid the need to make eye contact with others.
Here is a prime example from a forum thread, it is even supported by another user agreeing it is the best way to help.
I admit, I have used these methods before. I believed they were helping me, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
All they were doing was perpetuating my social anxiety and my need to avoid looking at people.
How could a perfectly normal situation make me feel this way and make it so I needed to get my phone out, stare at it and pretend I was doing something, just to try and remain calm?
It made me angry that this was who I had become, I didn’t want to just have to ‘cope’, I wanted to never feel that way again.
There had to be another way, and after trawling through hundreds of comments on a few forums I have found another person who has also realised this.
This was in the same thread as the first comment, yet not one person quoted his advice or agree with it.
Why are so many people all offering and supporting the same ineffective advice and ignoring what really works?
Because they are focused on just getting through the moment.
They are looking for a simple and easy way to react when the situation occurs.
Whatever is enough so they can just about cope, rather than proactively finding out what will stop them feeling that way in the first place.
I’ve always called it ‘the easy path’.
But is it really that easy when all it is doing is perpetuating the anxiety so that you always feel this way?
Surely what you want is not to feel this way in the first place, rather than just trying to cope.
However, this takes knowledge, time and effort and that in itself is often enough to get most people’s anxiety spiralling.
They see their failure to be able to do it, before they even start. It seems much easier just to try and ‘get by’ when you have to.
The truth is very simple:
To feel calm you must first be courageous.
You must do what it is your anxiety is saying you can’t, to show it is a lie.
Not cower to it and use avoidance as your technique for coping.
That is a surefire way to always feel socially anxious and so need to keep avoiding eye contact with others.
The important of eye contact to reduce social anxiety
It’s likely that the biggest part of your social anxiety revolves around trying to hide it from others.
You do not want people to know how you are feeling and to notice you are nervous, sweating, shaking, blushing etc.
You end up focusing your attention on yourself, your actions and how you feel you are coming across when you are interacting with others.
This is because you want to keep checking you are not doing anything you feel someone might notice as you feeling anxious.
However, it is this constant ‘checking’ that is responsible for most of your anxiety and it becomes a self perpetuating cycle.
This is exactly the same for eye contact. If you keep trying to avoid it, or feel uncomfortable when you try, it only makes you feel worse.
You’re worried other people will notice you cannot look them in the eye or you have to quickly look away and so the anxiety only grows.
But ask yourself this:
If you are unable to look at others or maintain eye contact with them then how else do you expect to feel?
This simple act of eye contact avoidance is telling your self image that you are a socially anxious person. So guess what? This is exactly how you are going to feel.
Although your social anxiety had got to the point where you started avoiding eye contact, it is the continued avoidance which is keeping you in that state.
The answer has to be to not continue with the techniques which keep you feeling anxious, but to face the original ‘threat’, to show yourself there is nothing for you to fear.
To stop perpetuating the cycle, and consciously being aware of yourself avoiding looking at others when you know eye contact is the natural human thing to do.
Eye contact is key for us to interact, to be sociable and to build relationships with other people and this is core to what makes us human, that need for social bonding. To avoid it can only make you feel worse.
Not only that but you miss out on new opportunities and new experiences, you retreat away from the world and worst of all stop being the person you can be.
Once I realised the avoidance techniques were only making things worse for me, I decided I had to change my approach.
I knew I had to slowly but surely increase my eye contact with others if I was to ever feel socially calm again.
To not care how it made me feel, but to do it anyway, because I knew that this was the only way to stop giving the anxiety its power to exist.
The choice was simple, carry on as I was and most likely never feel any better, or endure the anxiety and face it because it offered a way to feel calm again around others.
I’d had enough of letting my fear and anxiety control my decisions. They had clouded my mind and altered my thinking, making me believe I was someone I knew I didn’t have to be.
When I look back at it now it seems pretty obvious, yet anxiety changes you and what you believe. It alters the truth and because you think it, you believe it.
You can feel calm and relaxed around others and eye contact is key in doing this.
To feel calm around others you must actively look to increase the frequency and length of time you make eye contact with people
I’m not talking about staring people down to the point they feel uncomfortable. I’m talking about being able to hold someone’s gaze for a few seconds, and if in a conversation, continuing to do so throughout the interaction.
To be able to have someone catch your glance across the room, or on the train and be able to look at them, smile and feel that small enjoyment in a brief human connection.
When you can do this, you will feel an even larger enjoyment because you were able to do it and you’ll feel your confidence and feelings of self esteem grow.
Every day you do it a little more it will start to form as habit in your mind and eventually you will do it without even noticing. It takes that self conscious focus away from you and this is what makes you truly feel calm around others.
So let’s now look at how you can begin to go about doing this.
How to increase your eye contact and feel socially calm
First we start with a caveat.
It all centres around your want and desire to stop feeling this way, rather than just to try and cope with it.
In a way it’s like your reading of this article, which is long and takes time to read and a little thought to fully understand.
So if you’ve got to this point having read and taken the time to understand all that I’ve said you are already ahead of those who have just skimmed the words, skipped a section or didn’t even get this far.
You’ve taken this seriously because you agree that a long term solution is better than a quick fix.
You want to face this because you understand the reward of social anxiety recovery far outweighs the years of avoidance and anxiety.
In short, you agree that avoidance does not help and that the only way to feel better is to do it despite the way you feel. To not care if you feel anxious or not, you’re going to do it anyway.
If you want this, then you can do it.
I found the best way was to start with those people who you meet as you move about in your day to day life, those which you will pass on the street, in a shop or around your place of work.
This is because you are not ‘trapped’ in a situation with them and can quickly move on if you feel you need to.
So when you are next out and about, start to look at the people who pass you by or who are stood near you. Look to catch their eye and acknowledge them.
You’ll find a lot of people will not look back at you, in my experience less than half of people do. If after a few seconds or so they do not look, then move on to the next person.
Of those who do, some look away pretty quickly, but those who don’t will hold your gaze for a brief moment as you pass.
For those who you do make clear eye contact with, you have 4 choices:
- After a few seconds have passed just naturally look away and carry on with what you are doing
- Smile gently
- Nod in acknowledgment
- Say ‘hello’ or ‘good day’ and even enter into conversation
To start with just pick a 30 minute slot in your day when you will do this. Then each day slowly increase this time until whenever you are out and about you make a conscious effort to look at others and aim to interact with them – no matter how brief it may be.
When a brief interaction does take place you will feel one or many of the following:
- You feel good because someone has seen you, acknowledged you and wanted to interact back
- You feel human warmth because someone smiled in return and enjoyed the interaction too
- You feel you want to find the next person to have that brief interaction with and your motivation grows
- You begin to feel calmer and more relaxed each and every time you do it – especially when done in quick succession
Point number 4 here is key, this is where you are reprogramming your panic/anxiety response to not be triggered in future interactions.
It takes time and to begin with the anxiety and panic may feel very strong, but by pushing yourself to keep repeating the process your mind begins to stop seeing it as a threat.
You’ll find yourself wanting to interact with people more and more and your anxiety around others reduces and eventually goes.
This then helps you in situations where longer interactions are required, such as meals out, work meetings, interviews, etc.
So don’t try and dive in the deep end, start with the brief interactions and slowly grow their length and frequency.
There will be set backs along the way, days when it doesn’t go so well and you feel more anxious than your last interaction. This is ok, the key is to see a gradual upward trend in how you feel around others.
It really works, I know, because it is exactly what I did to stop my social anxiety and feel calm when around people.
Other benefits of eye contact and human interaction
This method not only helps reduce your anxiety around others, but also helps lift your whole mood and outlook.
Once you are able to strike up a conversation with someone during your day and enjoy the interaction, a smile and perhaps even a joke, it just makes you feel good……really good.
You come away from an interaction often with a grin and a warm feeling inside, this helps your self esteem which permeates into other areas of your life.
It also offers up the opportunity for new friendships and new experiences, you never know where a new conversation will take you.
You will find people who don’t want to know and would rather just keep to themselves. That’s ok, there will be plenty of people who do want to engage with you and you’ll often find these are the types of people worth talking to.
We spend too much of our time cut off from other people, wrapped in our protective bubble and going about our day with little thought for those around us.
Despite modern technology and the promise of easier communication, more and more people are feeling alone. This has a huge impact on their mental health and self confidence.
Do not allow your social anxiety to cut you off from the world and the people in it, it’s so important to feel a part of the society you live in.
To share your moments with others, even if they are a stranger you have just met that day, because the best memories are made by the people you share them with.
So if your social anxiety is stopping you from being able to do this then you must take the steps to stop it.
Make that decision and then get out there and do it. Use what you have learned here and believe in the process.
It’s worth it, I can promise you that.
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