How Do I Maintain Good Eye Contact?

Tips for Making Eye Contact When You Have Social Anxiety Disorder

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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. 

Eye Contact and Social Anxiety Disorder

Often people with social anxiety describe looking someone in the eyes as anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable.

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.

So, when you look someone in the eye, it may make you feel uncomfortable. If you have SAD, the part of your brain that warns you of danger can be set off by something as simple as the gaze of a stranger. 

Fortunately, with proper treatment including cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication, most people with SAD can learn to overcome this fear response and maintain better eye contact.

Eye Contact When Speaking to 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.

Eye Contact When Speaking to an Individual

What if you are talking to someone individually (or looking at people within a group) and looking someone in the eye is still too difficult?

There are options that are easier than looking someone directly in the eyes.

  • 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.
  • Letting your eyes go out of focus has the added benefit of softening and relaxing your gaze.
  • Staring too intensely will turn people off and make them uncomfortable in your presence—so be sure to look away occasionally.

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

What if I Still Can't Do It?

If you find that your social anxiety is severe, to the point that looking someone in the eye is overly distressing, you may wish to seek help from a mental health professional or your family doctor, if you have not already been diagnosed with SAD. 

Sources:

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. 2103; 872.

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