Tips to Help You Make Better Eye Contact When You Have Social Anxiety
You know that eye contact is important, but you just can’t do it because you have eye contact anxiety! What’s a person to do? Believe me, I feel you on this. Although I always make eye contact, it doesn’t always feel comfortable.
Eye contact can be particularly hard when you have social anxiety, because it feels like you are being judged.
Unfortunately, when you don’t make eye contact, you come across as lacking confidence or worse—that you’re not interested or unfriendly.
When working on your eye contact anxiety, it helps to understand that if you have social anxiety, your amygdala, which is the part of your brain that warns you of danger, is triggered when you look people in the eye.
In fact, among people with autism, brain scans have shown higher than normal activity in pathways that process facial expressions during eye contact.
What all this means is that you might be avoiding eye contact to manage overarousal; in other words, a feeling of overwhelm.
However, there are things you can do to reduce your anxiety and to learn to make better eye contact. You just need to work on some skills (in a safe way, while you build up your tolerance) and known how to bring down your arousal when it gets triggered.
Therapy or Medication
First things first. If you are diagnosed with social anxiety disorder or think that you may be living with this disorder, talk with your doctor or mental health professional about your problems with eye contact. He or she may recommend some form of therapy or a medication to help reduce your anxiety.
This will make it easier to make eye contact and follow some of the tips below to do it better.
Practice and Exposure
There’s no substitute for simply doing a lot of what makes you feel uncomfortable. Why? The more you do it, the less it will affect you. Practice and exposure helps to desensitize you to the eye contact.
This needs to be done gradually though, with increasing amounts of eye contact over time. If you normally don’t look anyone in the eye, don’t start staring everyone down.
Instead, start small with short encounters such as looking cashiers in the eye when you checkout. I know I’m guilty of this myself—I tend to look anywhere but in the eyes of the cashier.
If real life eye contact feels too hard, you can even start with looking in the eyes of people in videos that you watch.
Another way to relax if eye contact anxiety trips you up is to practice deep breathing. This will help to slow down your heart rate and calm you down if eye contact makes you feel overwhelmed.
Relax Your Gaze
Instead of trying to pick a spot between someone’s eyes (yes this is a typical bit of advice that I find hard to implement), instead you can relax your gaze and let your eyes go out of focus. This way, you can still appear to be making eye contact, but it won’t feel so invasive.
Follow the 50/70 rule. What this means is that you should maintain eye contact 50% of the time when you are speaking and 70% of the time when you are listening. This isn’t so much about managing your anxiety as it is to come across as less anxious. If you overstare or look away too often, both will make the other person feel uncomfortable
Along with the 50/70 rule, make sure you are regularly taking breaks from looking at the other person’s eyes. A good rule of thumb is to look for 5 seconds and look away. A handy way to remember this is that it’s about as long as it would take for you to notice what color of eyes they have.
To get a better feel for how this looks, watch TV and movie characters make eye contact with each other. Watch how they break contact and where they look when they do. Ideally, when you break eye contact, you should look either to the side or to another spot on their face such as their mouth.
Also, to avoid looking nervous, don’t look down when you break eye contact, don’t look away too quickly, and don’t look away just because you’ve grown uncomfortable. It’s more natural to pair breaking eye contact with a nod or gesture.
Start with Eye Contact
When you want to talk to someone, always start by making eye contact with them. This sounds simple enough, but not everyone does it. There’s been many times when someone has started talking to me without making eye contact, and the feeling I always get is that it wouldn’t matter who I was, they just wanted to talk. When you make eye contact, you show that you are trying to connect with the other person.
If you find yourself needing to talk to a group of people at once, eye contact can feel intimidating. To make it less anxiety-provoking, simply talk to one person at a time. Each time you finish a sentence or a thought, shift your eye contact to someone else. this is a good way to make everyone feel included when talking to a group.
Have a Goal
Finally, this is my personal favorite. Have a goal! This works best when you’ve chosen to speak to someone instead of them having chosen to speak to you. Are you trying to flirt with them? Trying to make a new friend? Trying to learn something new?
If you don’t have a goal in making eye contact, of course it will be hard. But if you’re genuinely interested in the conversation, for whatever reason, the eye contact will naturally follow.
And then you won’t be all up in your head trying to follow the “rules.” That’s when the conversation will start to flow more naturally and your eye contact will more easily fall into place.
That’s it! If you want to make better eye contact, you need to get help, practice, breathe deep, relax your gaze, follow the 50/70 rule and take breaks, and have a goal.
How about you? Do you find it hard to make eye contact? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.