A Neuropsychologist Shares With Us 6 Tips For Handling Friendship Anxiety

Friendships are supposed to add color, joy, and depth to our lives, but for many people, they can trigger upsetting feelings. In fact, friendship anxiety is a common form of social anxiety that focuses specifically on friendships, explains Florida-based neuropsychologist Aldrich Chan. "People with friendship anxiety may constantly worry about the status of their friendships, fear rejection or abandonment, and have difficulty trusting their friends," he explains, adding that this type of anxiety can also cause people to misinterpret words and actions, overanalyze social interactions, and feel uncomfortable in social situations. This can lead to severe difficulty to make and maintain healthy friendships. 

Some people deal with pervasive friendship anxiety for their entire lives, while others find that it's prompted by special circumstances, such as a move or stressful job change. Chan also says that exposure to social media, which many people take a break from to improve their mental health, is a common culprit. "Seeing others' seemingly perfect friendships or social activities can trigger feelings of insecurity and fear of missing out," he explains. So, when you see a post of your friends all out together, but you weren't invited, it's common for this to lead to questions about the authenticity of your friendships. Some hurt is normal, even expected. But if it causes severe, life-inhibiting upset, the friendship anxiety could be reaching problematic proportions. Fortunately, Chan gave Glam a series of exclusive, actionable tips to manage friendship anxiety and bring those relationships back into a positive space.

Recognize and acknowledge your anxiety

The first step to just about any type of healing is acknowledging the problem. "Recognizing your feelings and understanding that they are valid can help you take proactive steps toward managing them," Dr. Aldrich Chan exclusively tells Glam. One common sign of friendship anxiety is excessive reassurance-seeking, per Medical News Today. So, if someone constantly needs to be reassured that a friendship is solid and genuine, it's a red flag they're suffering from friendship anxiety. This stems from a fear they aren't accepted, which can quickly turn overwhelming.

If this sounds like you, think about why you have these feelings. Have you had a negative friendship experience in the past, which has caused you to be more cautious with new friendships? If so, friendship anxiety is a common reaction. "They [people who've had past negative friendships] may struggle to trust others and constantly worry about being hurt again," Chan says. Past trauma can also cause a fear of rejection. "People with friendship anxiety may have a fear of rejection or abandonment, which can make them more prone to experiencing anxiety in their friendships," he explains. "They may worry excessively about being liked, accepted, or included by their friends." So, if this sounds like you or a friend, acknowledge that these worries are real and impact your life negatively.

Practice self-care

Self-care has become something of a buzzword in recent years — and for good reason. Good self-care habits are shown to reduce the symptoms of mental health-related illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, per Mental Health First Aid USA. In fact, people who engage in self-care practices report increased happiness, productivity, and self-confidence. Then there are the physical health benefits, including reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, and cancer. So, take care of your body and mind, and they will return the favor.

"Taking care of your physical and mental well-being is crucial in managing anxiety," Dr. Aldrich Chan exclusively tells us. Fortunately, it's easy and enjoyable to engage in self-care practices. "Ensure you get enough sleep, eat well, and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation," he says. He also suggests engaging in regular exercise to take the edge off of friendship anxiety and adds that meditation and deep-breathing techniques are easy and effective ways to reduce stress levels — just one of the scientific benefits of meditation. For people whose minds run a mile a minute with worries, these steps can ease some of the noise and reduce anxiety levels.  

Challenge negative thoughts

Everyone has negative thoughts about themselves from time to time, such as after letting the car run out of gas or failing a test. It's when such thoughts become pervasive that they can affect other areas of life. Says Dr. Aldrich Chan, "Friendship anxiety often stems from negative thoughts and self-doubt. Challenge these thoughts by questioning their validity and replacing them with more positive and realistic ones." So, the next time your inner monologue insists that your friends don't really like you or want to be around you, do some work to flip the script. 

The Mayo Clinic recommends practicing positive self-talk. First, the organization says to be kind and encouraging to yourself and not to say anything about yourself you wouldn't want to say to others. Instead, when you have a negative thought, the Mayo Clinic suggests you evaluate it rationally, rather than emotionally. Then, counteract the negativity with affirmations about the ways you are good, kind, smart, funny, and so on. "Remind yourself of your worth and the positive qualities you bring to your friendships," Chan adds in our exclusive chat. Many people also spend a few minutes a day writing in a gratitude journal to keep their minds in a positive space.

Communicate with your friends

Very few people actually like confrontation, but sometimes it's necessary to keep a friendship from imploding. "Open and honest communication is key in managing friendship anxiety. Share your feelings with your friends and let them know about your struggles," Dr. Aldrich Chan exclusively explained to Glam, noting that they'll probably be more understanding and supportive of your friendship anxiety-related symptoms if they know what's going on inside that head of yours. 

Sometimes, the things that cause friendship anxiety are no big deal or are simple misunderstandings. But, occasionally, a situation arises that causes an anxiety flareup, like not being invited to an event or having unanswered texts. When that happens, it's definitely time to speak up. "Clear communication can help alleviate misunderstandings and build stronger bonds," Chan explains. Just be sure to stay calm and use "I" statements to avoid heaping tons of blame on them, which will just put them on the defensive, per DoSomething.org. The organization also suggests focusing on the specific issue or slight that's bothering you. The conversation should not go deep into the archives of all the times they hurt you because that will certainly ramp up the conflict. Often, a thoughtful conversation will reveal some miscommunication or other context that will make you feel a whole lot better about the situation. 

Set boundaries

Sometimes friendship anxiety gets out of control because certain friends expect too much or take a lot without giving back. When that happens, it's absolutely fine to set boundaries to protect your own mental health. "Setting boundaries can help reduce feelings of overwhelm and anxiety," Dr. Aldrich Chan exclusively tells us. 

Different types of boundaries can be set in a friendship. For example, emotional boundaries can protect your own mental health while you're experiencing tough times. In such a situation, Talkspace suggests honest statements such as "I'm sorry you're going through a tough time, but I just can't be there for you the way you need me to be right now" or "Sorry, please know I love you, but this is not a good time for me to talk." Those might be difficult words to say and hear, but it's better than not returning calls or totally avoiding your friend. 

It's also perfectly fine to decline a social invitation or favor request if your heart isn't in it. Says Chan, "Learn to say no when you need to and prioritize self-care." And, of course, love your friends, but learn to spot toxic behaviors. Per Choosing Therapy, they include failure to respect your reasonable boundaries, jealousy over other friends/relationships, the inability to accept responsibility, peer pressure behaviors, and many more. Overall, if you find yourself drained by the friendship or relieved when plans with them get canceled, it might be time to reevaluate the relationship.

Seek professional help if needed

A little bit of uncertainty or discontent with the occasional friendship is normal. But when friendship anxiety becomes a pervasive problem, this signals something bigger is going on, such as larger-scale social anxiety. "If someone is consistently experiencing significant distress or impairment in their friendships due to anxiety, seeking support from a mental health professional may be helpful," Dr. Aldrich Chan exclusively tells us, adding that it's also important to understand that friendship anxiety can present differently depending on a person's specific history and circumstances.

Fortunately, therapy has been largely destigmatized in recent years, and it can be a lifeline for people going through all sorts of struggles. Per Chan, a therapist can offer guidance and coping strategies to help a patient better deal with friendship anxiety. Plus, they can help you work through any underlying issues contributing to the problem. "Remember, managing friendship anxiety takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and celebrate small victories along the way," he says. "Surround yourself with supportive friends who understand and respect your journey."

Understanding and respect are two major cornerstones of friendship that shouldn't be a problem if you've chosen your pack well.