How To Overcome Eye Contact Anxiety

Tips for Making Eye Contact When You Have Social Anxiety Disorder

Man talking to a woman on the train.
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Eye contact anxiety can interfere with everyday social interactions. By the same token, the ability to maintain good eye contact is an important aspect of social interaction. People who look others in the eye are perceived as friendly and welcoming. However, many shy and socially anxious people have difficulty with this part of communication. 

Fear of Eye Contact in Social Anxiety Disorder

Often people with social anxiety describe looking someone in the eyes as anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable; they essentially have eye contact anxiety.

This is likely due, in part, to genetic wiring—research has shown that people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD) have a pronounced fear of direct eye contact.

When you look someone in the eye, it may make you feel uncomfortable. If you have social anxiety disorder, the part of your brain that warns you of danger can be set off by something as simple as eye contact. 

Research on Eye Contact in Social Anxiety Disorder

A 2017 review published in Current Psychiatry Reports found that social anxiety is related to a mixture of being on guard and avoiding processing emotional social stimuli. This means that at a party, you might both be on the lookout for people who seem to be judging you, but also try to avoid situations in which you feel you are being judged. In addition, the review showed that socially anxious people tend to avoid maintaining eye contact. Again, this is likely due to the fear of being judged.

Overcoming Eye Contact Anxiety

It seems, then, that overcoming eye contact anxiety is itself a two-step process. 

1. You need to reduce the anxiety you feel when engaging in eye contact with other people.

2. You need to improve your eye contact skills within social situations.

Reducing Anxiety About Eye Contact

With proper treatment including cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication, most people with social anxiety disorder can learn to overcome their fear response and maintain better eye contact.Eye contact is just one aspect of social interaction that you can become desensitized to through practice and exposure.

Improving Eye Contact Skills

1. In a Group

When speaking to a group of people, instead of thinking of the group as a whole, imagine having individual conversations with one person in the group at a time.

  • As you speak, choose one person in the group and pretend that you are talking just with that person.
  • Look at him as you finish your thought or sentence.
  • As you begin a new sentence or idea, choose another person in the group and look her in the eye as you finish your thought.
  • Make sure that you eventually include everyone in the group.

2. With an Individual

If you are talking to someone individually (or looking at people within a group), there are tips to help with that as well.

  • Choose a spot directly between or slightly above the listener’s eyes. 
  • If this doesn’t feel comfortable, try letting your eyes go slightly out of focus, which has the added benefit of softening and relaxing your gaze.
  • Look away occasionally. Staring too intensely will make people uncomfortable.

Employing these two strategies to improve your eye contact will make your listeners feel more connected to you and increase the likelihood that you will feel more comfortable when speaking—either to a group or to an individual.

A Word From Verywell

If you find that your social anxiety is severe to the point that looking someone in the eye is overly distressing, seek help from a mental health professional or your family doctor.

If you have not already been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your symptoms will be assessed and a treatment plan for your unique situation drawn up.

Sources:

Chen, N. T. M., & Clarke, P. J. F. (2017). Gaze-Based Assessments of Vigilance and Avoidance in Social Anxiety: a ReviewCurrent Psychiatry Reports19(9), 59. 

Myllyneva A, Ranta K, Hietanen JK. Psychophysiological responses to eye contact in adolescents with social anxiety disorder. Bio Psycho. 2015; 151-8.

Schulze L, Renneberg B, Lobmaier JS. Gaze perception in social anxiety and social anxiety disorder. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 872.

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