Coping With Nervousness Before Unavoidable Social Situations

There are two types of situations that a person may be nervous about ahead of time. One is when the event is essentially unavoidable or non-optional. The other is when there's some kind of scary optional action they can choose to perform or not. The two situations require different approaches to handling the anxiety they bring up.

When an event is unavoidable it means it's coming at a set time in the future. In theory you could back out, but doing so is often very impractical and not a realistic option. Examples would be class presentations, job interviews, dates, or social situations where you won't know many people and will have to mingle. You tend to start feeling at least a little nervous as soon as you've got the time and place of the event finalized. Then, although the feelings of anxiety ebb and flow as the countdown ticks away, the butterflies tend to build up more and more as the moment of truth gets closer. It can suck to be consumed by nerves for days ahead of time.

The event is inevitable, so your main goal should be to reduce the feelings of anxiety as much as you can. Here are some tips on how to do that:

You probably won't get rid of all your nervousness

There are things you can do which may take the edge off, but you probably can't eliminate all of your anticipatory anxiety. This is especially true if it's going to be your first time in an situation, or there's something unique about it. To a degree you just have to feel the nervous feelings and push forward anyway. Of course, while you don't have a ton of options for feeling better in the short term, in the long run you may be able to do that thing often enough that it doesn't bother you much anymore.

Challenge your more irrational worries about the event

Many people do this naturally when they're worried about something that's coming up. They'll tell themselves things like, "Ok, take a deep breath. It's probably not realistic that everyone at this party will hate me on sight and not want to talk to me. Even if they do, I can just leave." You can be more systematic and take some time to map out all your worries and see whether they're really likely to happen.

Like I was saying, if what you're doing is new or unique, you're still going to be a little anxious about it no matter what. Where challenging your worries does tend to have a bigger impact is when you've already had some experience with that type of event. If you've given dozens of sales presentations already, telling yourself that it will all go fine will carry a lot more weight. If you have to give your first one ever, your mind will tend to dismiss the same reassurances.

I talk more about the general approach of challenging negative thoughts here:

Challenging Maladaptive Thoughts

Distract yourself

The best thing you can do if you're nervous before something is to distract yourself. As a general approach to dealing with anxiety, distracting yourself doesn't really work in the long term, because you're not dealing with the problem head on. However, when you've just got some discrete, isolated event coming up and you want to feel better about it, it's totally fine. It's better than dwelling on how keyed up you are.

Distraction works because your body has a hard time thinking or feeling two different things at once. If you throw yourself into doing something else you'll start to override the nervous feelings. You may feel too anxious to think you can do anything, but if you force yourself to focus on something else you'll likely feel better.

You can distract yourself by:

At the moment you're doing any of these things you'll be less capable of feeling nervous. The nerves will come back pretty quickly once you stop though. The ideal situation is to fill your schedule with as many fun activities as possible before the anxiety-inducing event. For example, if you have to go to a party at 8:00pm, and you start feeling nervous at 2:00pm, you should get out of the house and do as much as you can, then pop back in at the last minute to get ready and head out.

Prepare and practice

This tends to work better for more performance-based events like presentations and job interviews. It could also apply to any kind of short statement you want to make to someone (e.g., asking someone if they want to hang out, confronting a roommate about being unreliable, asking a neighbor to turn their music down). It's not as effective for loose, improvised social events like dates and parties, where you have to think on your toes.

If you're prepared enough it's hard to feel as nervous because you can be confident you've got things reasonably down. Practicing ahead of time works better if the rehearsal is as close as possible to the real thing. So doing a bunch of mock job interviews through a career center will make you feel more prepared then just thinking about how you'd answer certain questions as you watch TV. Doing a run through of a presentation in your actual class with the projector fired up and some friends in the audience will help more than saying your lines out loud to yourself as you pace around your apartment.

If you're attending a less structured social event you can still sort of prepare by doing things like coming up with questions you could ask people, or topics you could bring up. You could also devise a general strategy for approaching the event, e.g., at a party first you'll catch up with your friends, then you'll ask them to introduce you to people so you won't have to do it yourself, then you'll head to the backyard and try to join the people who are talking there. However, in my experience these kinds of plans have a tendency to go out the window as soon as you arrive at the event. Either you forget to use them, or you find you don't need to because the situation was totally different from how you imagined it would be. Still, preparing may make you feel better about going in the first place.

A better way to practice for unstructured events is just to socialize a lot that day, ideally under roughly similar circumstances. So if you have to go to a party you'll feel way more at ease and on top of things if you've spent the day hanging out with a bunch of friends, or you attended a family lunch that afternoon. If you've got a date you could hang out with a friend earlier in the day, to get you used to chatting to someone one-on-one.

Talk to people

When you're nervous usually the last thing you want to do is talk to anyone. But if you force yourself to do it a lot of your anxious feelings will clear up. If you have a date or presentation likely one of your fears is that you'll be too nervous to talk properly and everyone will realize how jittery you are. By speaking to other people before the big event you're living out this 'having to talk when anxious' scenario ahead of time. This also gets you into that more sociable, outgoing mood. Also, being social will give the added benefit of distracting you somewhat.

Admit you're nervous

A lot of nervousness is caused by not wanting to let people know you're feeling that way. It's not a cure-all, but often just admitting you're anxious to people takes a lot of the pressure off. Pretty much everyone can relate to feeling anticipatory anxiety, so they'll be sympathetic. It doesn't have to be phrased as an embarrassing admission of failure either. You can just state it in a jokey, off-handed manner; you're mentioning you're nervous, but you're also comfortable with it, and don't think there's anything wrong with feeling that way.

Knowing how you'll likely do can help ease your worries

Another way you may be able to relax a little is to have a realistic idea of how things will go once they get started:

If you're capable of performing well in the situation you're nervous about, then you'll likely be fine as soon as things get underway

You'll still be apprehensive beforehand, but you'll calm down very quickly if you can do what is required of you in the nervousness-inducing situation. There may be one final rush of anxious sensations once you begin, but once those pass you're probably in the clear.

For example, you may a bit nervous before going to a party, but if you're good at chatting to new people then you'll be fine once you get there. You may feel hesitant for a minute or two as you survey the scene, but will be okay after that. It's almost like the 'nervous anticipation mode' and the 'performance in the moment mode' are separate parts of you. You just switch over from one to the other and don't look back.

If you're doing something new that you know isn't a big deal, you'll also be fine as soon as things start

It's often not based on anything logical, but just doing something new may cause you to feel a bit anxious. Once it starts, and you experience that everything is fine, the nerves will dissipate.

If you're not capable of performing well in the situation you're nervous about, then your nervousness will linger for a while after you start

The nervous feelings will eventually subside as you get comfortable with the situation, but they'll probably screw you up a bit first. There are some things in life that are just write offs - you're going to be a wreck beforehand and you're going to do a mediocre job once you begin. But you'll get more skilled and experienced over time and things will be easier in the future.

Sometimes you don't know whether you're capable of performing a task or not

If you've never done something before you really have no idea whether you'll be good at it or not. The rules still apply. If you find you're okay at the task, then your nervousness will go away. If you find you're not that good at it then the nerves will linger. You may mess up, but next time will be easier.

Sometimes in anxiety-inducing scenarios there are events that will reduce most of your nerves if they happen

You can't control this, but knowing these things can happen might provide some relief. Plus, they're always nice when they occur. They're the circumstances that just take all the pressure out of a situation. Examples: