Navigating social anxiety with new friends

By Emily Tobiason

Photo by Kimson Doan

Whether you’re a people person or not, you may occasionally experience social anxiety. We’re all often concerned about what other people are thinking about us, especially when we’re in our 20s and so much seems to be riding on what we’re doing right now. It can be difficult to keep up the self-confidence and live in the moment when we’re constantly needing to network, make a name for ourselves, and figure out our lives.

We can’t claim to have all the answers yet (we’re in our 20s, too), so we looked for someone else who might. Psychologist Dr. Sarah Colwell currently works as Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo’s Campus Health & Wellbeing Outreach Coordinator, and she gave us some tips to share on building long-lastings connections and ways to support ourselves amidst this challenging, overwhelming, scary, totally new and unique … I think you get the point … time.

How to make genuine connections, even when it feels difficult

Here are some tips from Dr. Colwell and those of us at Social Spark for how to navigate the post-grad life and find your people:


  1. Learn your values - Seems basic, but have you ever really laid yours out? Well there’s no time like the present. Ask yourself the following: What are my values and interests right now? What do I really want?

    Connecting with somebody through a shared interest can be the starting point to a conversation and, hopefully, lead to a long-lasting relationship. That interest, value, or want can initiate something small that can later be explored more deeply. Plus, it’s cool to know the type of person you want to be.

  2. Find social situations that are (1) small and (2) repetitive - It can be much easier to find connections in smaller groups rather than larger ones. Also, you’re much more likely to build long-lasting relationships when you’re seeing these people on a regular basis. Hmm, this reminds us of a membership where you’re matched with small groups to get to know people in a casual setting. Maybe we have learned a thing or two…

    “If you have repeated exposures of having experiences together, it makes it a lot easier to start building friendships,” Dr. Colwell says.

  3. Remind yourself why you’re doing this - Trying to meet new people and form authentic, meaningful relationships can be tiring—but it’s worth it. Questioning why you’re putting yourself through awkward, uncomfortable, or anxiety-inducing situations is totally normal, so when this happens, reassure yourself that it’s because you want something (namely, genuine friendships).

    Finding people to go do things with, text before bed about tomorrow’s plans, or lean on when things get hard is what’s motivating you to put yourself out there. It’s not all for nothing.

  4. Know that your anxiety isn’t trying to hurt you - I’m a friendly and sociable person, but the thought of talking to strangers, even (and sometimes especially) if they’re my age, can feel really scary! Having anxiety about meeting new people is completely normal—it just means that we care. And of course we care, humans need social connection. We are hardwired to want relationships and bond with other people and things.

    As Dr. Colwell says, “It usually takes about three times for you to feel comfortable doing something … just keep doing it, it’ll get easier.”

  5. Remember that it will take time - It would be nice if we could all wake up one day and have the most meaningful, authentic friendships of our lives all of the sudden. Unfortunately, that won’t happen for most of us, because, as Dr. Colwell says (and you probably have heard before), “Anything worth value takes time.” If your relationship-building seems to be taking a long time, know that that’s normal.

    At all costs, avoid comparing your timeline to other peoples. If your friends in another city found their group super quickly and you haven’t, that’s fine! It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or you’re doing something wrong. Most of us are in the same boat as you. People’s timelines are going to be different because we are different people. (Although your friends in other cities will probably be jealous soon when they hear that you have Social Spark in your city.)

  6. Look at the situation from a different perspective - There is a positive side to starting your social situation fresh: you have the freedom to build the life you want. You get to embrace who you are now and get to know your current self better by exploring what you like to do, who you like to be around, and what you’re looking for in friends. Your old friends are always going to be special, but now you get to create new friendships that align more with who you are now.

    “When you’re going to a totally new place, no one knows you,” Dr. Colwell says. “You can have a new nickname, have a new persona, totally new style, like whatever—no one’s gonna question it, they’re just gonna know you as it.”

Friendly reminders going forward


  1. If you’re feeling awkward, anxious, or uncomfortable in a new social situation, it’s likely that most everyone else is, too. Like you, a lot of people might be focusing on what everyone else is thinking and wishing they had a familiar face with them. Recognize that, and let it help soothe your anxieties. As Dr Colwell (and Troy Bolton) says, “we’re all in this together.”

  2. You know how everyone says graduating college means going out into “the real world?” News flash—you’re already in it! You’ve been in it for a while now, since about the time you left for college. You’ve gone through life challenges before, and you can do it again. You’ve got this.

  3. Practice self-kindness. Dr. Colwell says “understanding it’s supposed to be hard, understanding that it’s okay to feel anxious” is important. We can guarantee that you are not alone in your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Lots of people are experiencing the same as you—otherwise we would not have had the need to start this business.

    Practicing mindfulness can help with your self-compassion, according to Dr. Colwell. Mindfulness is all about staying present instead of worrying about the past or future. And “staying present” can happen in a lot of small ways:

      • Going for a walk and observing your surroundings. Take in the things you’ve seen already and then try to notice things you haven’t before. Look at what’s above your eye level (I’m shocked how little I do this in my day to day routine, just try it and see if you feel the same).

      • Noticing the scent and feel of your shampoo in the shower. What ingredients do you recognize in the scent? How does it feel against your hands and scalp? Can you blow bubbles in it?

        Observing how your breath feels going in and out of your nose or mouth. Does the air feel cold or warm? Where in your nose do you stop feeling the air go in and out?

    It’s important to remember that the small steps of mindfulness are not always going to feel extraordinarily enlightening right away. As someone who learned about mindfulness in therapy many years ago, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated that I went right back to feeling anxious after trying one of these exercises. Over time, though, mindfulness can help us feel more confident and relaxed, and less anxious. It can just take time and practice, but we deserve that investment in ourselves.

  4. Don’t be afraid to get support. Call your mom (that’s one of our favorite solutions for everything!). Reach out to friends from school or your childhood just to say hi. Consider trying out therapy to learn new perspectives and ways to support yourself. It doesn’t have to be a huge deal—I like to think of it as another form of self care, like my skincare routine. And remember, “It doesn't have to be the worst of the worst for you to get support,” Dr. Colwell says.

All in all, putting yourself out there can be really difficult—but there are ways to make it a little bit more manageable. We wish you the best of luck going forward and are here to support you through it all.
Navigating social anxiety with new friends
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