Coping with social anxiety when you’re self-employed

By Claudia Kozeny-Pelling

Many freelancers prefer working from home for practical reasons. There’s no commuting, and you may enjoy a better work/life balance with more control over your daily routines. But if you suffer from social anxiety, the desire to stay at home and avoid social situations can create problems for your business. 

Social anxiety is sometimes also called “social phobia”. “Phobia” may seem a strong term, but the symptoms of this condition can be very distressing and often have a hugely negative impact on people’s life. To sufferers, it can be as debilitating as other, more well-known, phobias.

We’ll discuss here how social anxiety presents itself and what you can do about it - especially as a self-employed person.

 

What is social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety is much more than just shyness or introversion. It’s a long-term, “overwhelming fear of social situations” that can severely affect people’s daily lives. It is one of the most common anxiety disorders in the UK. Estimated rates of lifetime prevalence in the UK vary but have been “as high as 12%” compared with estimates for other anxiety disorders, such as PTSD (7%), generalised anxiety disorder (6%), panic disorder (5%) and OCD (2%). 

Often, social anxiety starts in the teenage years and can go hand in hand with other mental health issues, such as depression, substance misuse (e.g. self-medication with alcohol or drugs) and other anxiety disorders. 

Unfortunately, those affected often suffer in silence. NICE estimates that “only about half of those with the disorder ever seek treatment, and those that do generally seek treatment only after 15–20 years of symptoms”. 

 

What are the causes and symptoms of social anxiety?

A few factors seem to play a role here, though more research needs to be done on this. Some people may be just naturally more anxious than others and have “learned to worry” about social situations. A difficult upbringing and other distressing life experiences can also be contributing factors. People who are on the autism spectrum and/or suffer from ADHD may also be more likely to develop this disorder.

Physical symptoms

Common physical symptoms when encountering social situations may be:

  • Accelerated breathing.

  • Blushing.

  • Chest tightness.

  • Dizziness and light-headedness.

  • Dry mouth.

  • Feeling restless or tense.

  • Heart racing (palpitations).

  • Stomach problems/ nausea.

  • Sweating.

  • Tingling or numb fingers and toes.

  • Urge to go to the toilet.
     

Psychological symptoms

The above usually go hand in hand with psychological symptoms, such as:

  • Worrying about or avoiding everyday situations, e.g. meeting strangers, going to events or parties, starting conversations, speaking in group settings, talking on the phone, and shopping.

  • Fretting about how you will be perceived by others when eating, speaking or taking part in a group activity.

  • Being embarrassed by and acutely aware of your physical symptoms in public, and thinking you are being watched and judged.

  • Self-critical thoughts during and after an event.

  • Avoiding eye contact.

  • Suffering from low self-esteem.

  • Experiencing panic attacks.

  • An urge to self-medicate to reduce tension, for example with alcohol. 

 

How can social anxiety impact your freelance career?

As we’ve seen, social anxiety can severely affect people’s quality of life. Some freelancers may feel less anxious when working from home, as you’ll have a better chance of avoiding the social situations that trigger issues. These can include everything from telephone and in-person meetings to having lunch with colleagues or commuting. But the condition can still impact your career even if you’re self-employed.

Decreased confidence when marketing yourself

 

In order to have a successful freelance career, we often need to step out of our comfort zones. Marketing your services isn’t easy, even if you don’t suffer from anxiety disorders.

For example, we are often told to ‘show our face’ regularly on our social media channels - ideally via live video posts, as many channels’ algorithms favour these. We also may be encouraged to use direct marketing methods, such as messaging or phoning potential customers.

But if you are affected by social anxiety, self-promotion in person or online becomes very difficult, if not impossible. This is likely to have a direct impact on brand awareness and sales.

Issues when attending meetings or networking events

As a self-employed business owner, you will need to build good working relationships with other freelancers. These networks can help you become less isolated and may also be a source of potential income through client referrals. 

However, whether attending meetings via online video calls or in person, these can be traumatic experiences for freelancers who suffer from social anxiety.

For example, you may be invited to join a virtual networking meeting with 50 other freelancers and be asked to introduce yourself and your business in just one minute. This can cause huge mental pressure. 

In-person networking events may encourage you to chat to as many people as possible in one room in ‘speed dating’ fashion, exchanging business cards and information about yourself and your work. “Ice breakers” or forced small talk over a buffet lunch can be awkward, too.

 

Problems when dealing with clients

Being self-employed means that we need to solve issues with (sometimes difficult) potential and current customers. Being assertive in these situations is especially challenging for someone suffering from social anxiety. This can lead to feelings of even lower self-esteem and potentially to a loss of income if, say, outstanding invoices aren’t chased up because of anxiety issues.

 

Can working from home make social anxiety worse?

Working from home has many benefits, including more flexibility in terms of when and where to work. Recent research by McKinsey revealed that 52% of workers would prefer a “more flexible hybrid or remote work arrangement” because of this.

While many freelancers who suffer from social anxiety may initially also feel more relaxed when working from home, this doesn’t tackle the root of the problem. Avoiding triggering situations isn’t a cure and can make you even more nervous about encountering them in future. This may lead to more self-isolation and an increased “fear of fear” - a vicious cycle.

It has been shown that Covid lockdowns and the enforced working from home arrangements increased anxiety levels in the general public. Contributing factors to this were, for example, a lack of exercise, diminished communication with colleagues, disruptions from children or other family members, poor work-station set-ups and the difficulty of distinguishing between work and home life. 

Recent research by IPSE undertaken in March 2021 shows that 20% of freelancers still have either “poor or very poor mental health”. A big factor here has been a loss of income through the impact of the Covid pandemic, resulting in a lack of sleep, difficulty in concentrating, and decreased self-confidence.

Many of the above factors can negatively affect the mental health of people who are already suffering from social anxiety and may increase their symptoms even further. 

Interestingly, research has shown that people with this condition usually have equal social skills to others, but do not believe they do. They also tend to make unjustified “negative guesses” about what others may think of them. So, completely avoiding virtual or in-person meetings or potentially difficult situations isn’t the answer. 

The good news is that social anxiety can be treated. We’ll look at ways of how to break this vicious cycle below.

 

How can you manage social anxiety if you’re self-employed?

 

 

 

It is important to talk to your GP in the first instance if you have any anxiety symptoms that impact your life. However, the suggestions below may help to increase your social wellbeing, too.

Ways to tackle video calls and online meetings

Zoom, Google Meet and Skype are just a few of the tools self-employed people have at their disposal to connect with (potential) customers or fellow freelancers. But how can you manage these platforms if you’re suffering from social anxiety?

Practice makes (almost) perfect

Write down your pitch or main discussion points and practise your calls with family or friends. Make sure you have prepared well for any presentations or chats, but don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect. Nobody is. 

Familiarise yourself with the meeting software before attending online events. If you are very uncomfortable with being live on video in large group meetings and you don’t necessarily have to speak, check if it’s OK to keep your camera switched off - at least for some time. You could use a professional-looking background image of yourself instead. 

Choose the right networks for you

You may find that smaller, more relaxed online networking events such as Meeow may suit you better than bigger, formal or fast-paced ones. Rather than pitching to dozens of other business owners under pressure, you can just chat to up to three other freelancers in one ‘room’, which may be less daunting.

Rest and recharge

It’s also important to schedule enough time in between calls and networking events to recover. For example, you could use a free meditation app such as InsightTimer before and after meetings to help calm you down.

How to cope with real-life events or meetings

Many of the suggestions for online events also hold for in-person meetings, such as using relaxation techniques, researching and preparing for presentations, and giving yourself a break afterwards. In addition, try the following:

Keep it small and simple

Attending smaller events may work better for people suffering from social anxiety. Any pitches you prepare should be short and sweet. Simplicity is best to put your point across anyway! Practise speaking slowly and clearly beforehand.

Take a friend

You may find it easier to attend some events together with a self-employed friend or acquaintance, who may help you with initiating conversations with others and give you moral support.

Manage your expectations

Networking and meetings can be tough, even for those not feeling particularly anxious. It takes time to build strong relationships, so don’t expect to get leads or results immediately.

 

Other tactics to reduce social anxiety

Set limits: learn to say ‘No’ 

If you’re struggling with anxiety and assertiveness issues, it’s easy to take on more than you should. Freelancers often underestimate how long tasks may take anyway. That’s why it’s so important to recognise the first signs of social anxiety and stop the vicious cycle of getting more and more worried and overwhelmed. 

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. For example, if you are already working on two projects and are struggling, don’t accept a third one. 

Stick to fixed working hours and make sure you set healthy boundaries with your clients.

Initiate socialising where you feel comfortable

If you can choose your preferred setting to meet with friends, fellow freelancers or potential clients, you’ll have greater control over your anxiety levels. So, initiate meeting up on your own terms if you can. 

Work where you work best

 

Finally, every person is different. Don’t let others tell you where you should work. You may feel better interacting online than in person, so give yourself a break and don’t push yourself too far, too soon. 

You could experiment with working in a friendly and relaxed co-working space, to see if this works for you. There may also be cafés in your area that you could try to work in just to “get out”, even if you don’t interact much with others (yet). Of course, there are pros and cons of co-working environments, but it is worth testing if they may be suitable to tackle some of your social anxiety triggers.

Exercise 

Getting regular exercise at home or in the gym is key to better physical and mental health, along with a balanced diet. For example, it may be helpful to do exercise before or after an important meeting to reduce stress levels. See more information on other treatment options below.

 

What medication and treatments are available for social anxiety disorder?

Luckily, there are several treatment options available for sufferers. Your first port of call should be your GP, who can refer you to a mental health specialist. Alternatively, if you wish, you could refer yourself directly to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT). In addition, explore the options listed below.

Self-help tips

Identify triggers 

Everyone is different, so it is important to understand your personal anxiety triggers. This NHS Social Anxiety Self Help Guide (PDF) is an excellent resource that helps you think through certain situations and explores what goes through your mind at each stage.

 

Become aware of negative thought patterns and emotions

With practice, it’s possible to reduce and replace common negative thoughts and feelings you may experience and to decrease the focus and pressure on yourself.

Negative thought patterns may include, for example:

  • ‘Mind reading’ (e.g. “They think I’m stupid.”)

  • ‘Catastrophising’ (e.g. “If my presentation fails, I’ll lose this client.”) 

  • Only focusing on what went badly rather than seeing the overall picture (“I can’t believe I mispronounced that word at the start…”)

Recognise and overcome your safety behaviours 

Next, you’ll need to analyse and tackle your individual safety behaviours, such as staying at home, speaking too quickly, not looking people in the eye, and so on.

 

Learn to cope with uncertainty

Many people who suffer from anxiety find it hard to deal with uncertainty. However, to become more relaxed, it’s important to accept that little in life is certain. It’s a good idea to not over-plan, to be more spontaneous and to delegate, where possible.

Of course, all these factors will vary from person to person, so it’s crucial that you take time to sit down and analyse what your triggers and coping mechanisms are.

 

Reduce physical symptoms

The following exercises can help reduce physical manifestations of anxiety:

Listening to relaxing instrumental music, nature sounds or guided meditations may be helpful, too. Check out mindfulness apps such as Calm or InsightTimer.

 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a popular and effective therapy for anxiety disorders. If your symptoms are mild, you may want to start with a computerised CBT programme, such as WorryTree. You can also find a list of other helpful and free mental health apps here.

However, if you experience more extreme social anxiety, a one-to-one CBT programme will be best for you.

 

Medication options

Your GP or mental health professional may prescribe certain antidepressants, such as SSRIs. These can increase serotonin levels in your brain. However, medication is usually only given in combination with the CBT and self-help methods outlined above.

 

 

Further support and external resources for freelancers with social anxiety

 

Support groups

In addition to the above treatment suggestions, you may find online or local support groups helpful. The NHS website recommends the following resources:

 

Helplines and Listening Services

 

If you are feeling very distressed, please get immediate help. Contact one or more of the services listed below. 

Samaritans - 24-hour support to those experiencing emotional stress, struggling to cope or with suicidal thoughts.

116 123 (24 hours a day, every day.)

MIND - Offers support, advice and information to those with mental health problems.

0300 123 3393 (9am - 6pm, Mon-Fri.)

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – Offers support to those who are down or have hit a wall for any reason.

0800 58 58 58 (5pm - midnight, every day.)

Other useful helplines and listening services

 

Remember, you are not alone. Many self-employed people suffer from social anxiety disorder, but it is definitely possible to get better. We hope this article has been helpful to you.

 

Selected resources and links

 

Every Mind Matters Video: Mindful breathing exercise

 

Coping with uncertainty

 

Relaxation - Breathing Techniques

Steps for Stress / Muscle Relaxation Exercise

NHS Videos: Distraction techniques to help with anxiety

 

 

 


 

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