Graded Exposure for Social Overwhelm

Feeling a bit of social anxiety on the horizon? Take the pressure off through graded exposure.

Graded exposure is a strategy used in anxiety management. The idea is that if we gradually expose ourselves to discomfort, we can build our tolerance over time. In the context of leaving lockdown, we can become more and more comfortable in social environments that feel new, overstimulating or anxiety inducing.

The trick is to expose ourselves gradually and practice self-soothing to ease discomfort in the moment. If we push ourselves too far, we can acknowledge this as useful insight, take a step back and try again when we feel ready.

Tips For Gradual Exposure:

  • Pre-connect — reach out to people you will see in the future to start building familiarity
  • Go for quality over quantity — choose the things you're most excited about
  • Plan to arrive late — trade the ‘sorry I’m late’ for ‘It’s so great to see you!’
  • Plan to leave early — if you surprise yourself and feel better than expected, stay a little longer
  • Take breaks — give yourself space to breathe by stepping outside or going for a wander
  • Compromise — see where there is room for change in plans
  • Say no — look out for your future self by preventing social overload
  • Prioritise comfort — places, people and activities you feel comfortable with
  • Call a friend — connect with friends/family via phone/text during or after to help you ground and debrief
  • Bring a friend — someone by your side that has your back and helps you feel safe
  • Self-validate — acknowledge your effort, challenges and strengths during and after social connection
  • Recharge with alone time — dedicate sacred time to be with yourself and do the things that nourish you

Self-Soothing Strategy Ideas:

  • Listen to relaxing music
  • Observe the rhythm and feeling of your breath
  • Mindfully focus your eyes on one thing at a time in your environment
  • Place your hands somewhere on your body and apply gentle pressure
  • Shift your attention towards others and what you can learn about them
  • Guide your muscles to soften from head to toe
  • Bring an activity to catch ups to take the pressure off direct conversation
  • Use self-affirmations like ‘other people feel this way’, ‘this is practice’, ‘I am human’ 


Reflection Questions:

What is a social situation you would like to feel more confident and comfortable in? e.g. going to a party, speaking at an event, working in the office

What self-soothing strategies do you find most effective?

What self-soothing strategies would you like to try or strengthen?

Would you like to create a plan of action for graded exposure? Here is a Gradual Exposure worksheet for you.


Would you like support navigating your lifestyle as you leave lockdown? Join us at Creating Routine for Mood & Anxiety on Saturday 9th November.

Would you like to connect with the I Live In Balance community? Join us on Saturday 20th November for a community picnic in Melbourne!