The moment is here. The business networking event is packed. People are everywhere, and your heart begins to pound. Your mind races uncontrollably, and tightness forms in your chest...
If you’ve experienced social anxiety while networking, you’re not alone.
Social anxiety disorder – the symptoms of which can include sweating, blushing, trembling, difficulty breathing, nauseousness, and more – is especially common in young adults…Unfortunately, young adulthood is also a critical time for attending industry events and reaping the rewards of in-person networking.
So what's the solution? How do you build your business network while dealing with social anxiety?
If you have social anxiety, here are some expert tips to help you build confidence and network in a better, healthier way.
Visualizing an event can help with social anxiety by allowing a person to mentally rehearse the event in a controlled and safe setting. This can help to reduce anxiety by increasing a person's confidence and familiarity with the event, as well as by providing a sense of control over the situation. Additionally, visualizing positive outcomes can help to counteract negative thoughts and beliefs that may be contributing to anxiety.
The Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Susan Albers-Bowling suggests imagining specific potential interactions, like approaching someone standing alone and saying hello; grabbing a coffee or tea and making a friendly comment to a peer doing the same; getting comfortable at a table or chair and introducing yourself to a seatmate. Imagine that your warmth and enthusiasm supersede your anxiety and serve as a magnet that attracts others.
“If you’ve walked through it in your mind,” Albers said, “your brain is going to think, ‘Oh, I’ve been there, done that… I can do this.’”
Remember it’s not a competition
If you’re at a large networking event, no doubt you’ll see certain individuals who seem BORN to do this sort of thing. They’re light, smiling, and never without a conversational partner. This type observation is fine in-and-of-itself. But it becomes a problem if you let your mind spiral into comparisons.
“Why is it so easy for them to interact but so hard for me?” or “Why can’t I be casual and cool like that person?”
These are negative thoughts, and the better you can recognize them as such and put an end to them the better.
Networking events are not competitions, they’re about you and your experience. Focus only on how you feel and, when you’re in conversation with others, focus on how you’re making them feel. This type of “look at what’s in front of you” attitude is a much healthier mindset then needless comparison.
Take breaks and focus on your breathing
If you’re at a networking event and you start to feel familiar social anxiety manifestations, stop what you’re doing, and go somewhere private where you can simply focus on your breathing.
Whether this means going for a walk outside, heading to the restroom, or doing whatever you need to do to calm yourself down. The key here is to put your own mental wellbeing first. Even if you’re in an “important” situation, don’t compromise your mental wellbeing. Simply tell whoever you’re tell whoever you’re talking to “please excuse me,” and make your exit. Noone needs to know more than that but – if necessary you can add that you need a moment to “catch your breath.” If someone respects you, they’ll certainly understand this need. And, if they don’t, odds are they are not someone you’ll enjoy doing business with anyway.
Remember, there is nothing better you can do for yourself personally or professionally then prioritizing your mental health and wellness.
Set time limits
Avoidance is a big issue when it comes to social anxiety. So, how do you make things easier without avoiding anxiety-inducing situations all together? Set easy-to-achieve time limits.
For example, tell yourself “I’ll go to this networking event for 1-hour. Then I can leave.” Or if you’re already at the event you can say “I’ll talk to this person for 5 minutes, and then move on or excuse myself.”
These types of baby-steps are not to be taken lightly – they can make a major difference when it comes to growing your confidence and conquering social anxieties.
“When you have anxiety, the biggest issue is around avoidance,” Albers said. “You often want to avoid a situation altogether. That’s why it’s really important to put some boundaries around your time. You can tell yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to talk to this person for 10 minutes.’ You can get through 10 minutes! If you go in thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be hours,’ it can really ratchet up your anxiety.”
Advocate for others
Talking about yourself at networking events can be especially difficult. SO, try talking about others.
Susan Albers-Bowling’s advice is to reframe the event: Tell yourself you’re here to make connections that benefit someone you know, find out who’s hiring and offer to help spread the word, learn more about [X] topic, or otherwise.
Consider your nutrition
An expert on the role nutrition plays in social anxiety, Dr. Albers-Bowling advises certain vitamins and minerals that can help you feel calm and relaxed.
“When your vitamin D or magnesium levels are low,” says Albers-Bowling, “you tend to feel more anxious. Taking supplements or eating vitamin D and magnesium-rich foods several days in advance of an event can be very helpful. Those can help to buffer the stress that your body feels.”
Use a digital business card
Exchanging contact information doesn’t need to cause anxiety. Use a digital business card to conclude your networking interactions in a smooth and easy way. Imagine simply tapping your Popl device to someone’s phone and instantly they’re looking at your digital business card, it's that simple.
Want more business networking tips?
- New ways to build your business network
- Gen Z and the new rules of networking
- Best professional icebreakers | 10 great networking openers