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How to Overcome Eye Contact Anxiety (Our Top Tips)

Jamie Mendiola

Written By:

Jamie Mendiola

Updated: 23 July 2024 •  
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Eye contact anxiety is real. And honestly, it’s not as uncommon as you might think.
 
In the US alone, there are about 15 million people [1] who are diagnosed with social anxiety. And, a study back in 2011 [2] revealed that people with social anxiety find it hard to maintain eye contact.
 
However, social anxiety isn’t the only thing that causes one to avoid eye contact. So, let’s explore everything there is to know about eye contact anxiety and what you can do about it.
 

What is eye contact anxiety?

couple experiencing tension due to eye contact anxiety

Eye contact anxiety could be accompanied by physical signs like difficulty in breathing and increased heart rate.

 
Do you find it hard to look people in the eyes? How about making eye contact during a conversation?
 
If your answer to these questions is a resounding YES, you might have eye contact anxiety.
 
Eye contact anxiety may also be accompanied by one or more of the following physical symptoms:
 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating or blushing
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Trembling

 
Now, you might wonder, ‘Why do some people have eye contact anxiety?’ The answer usually lies in one’s mind. In other words, feelings of anxiety that arise when looking someone in the eye can be connected to the state of your mental health.
 

Top 3 causes of eye contact anxiety

woman covering her face due to eye contact anxiety

Being anxious about making eye contact can mean you have social anxiety disorder or autism.

 

1. Social anxiety disorder (SAD)

 
People diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, or SAD, often avoid eye contact. In fact, some might even find it panic-inducing.
 
When you have SAD, direct eye contact can trigger your fight-or-flight instinct. To the uninitiated, that’s the part of your brain that goes ‘danger alert!’ and keeps you from dangerous situations.
 
A 2017 review study [3] reported that SAD is rooted in feelings of being on guard, plus avoidance of incoming emotional stimuli.
 
As such, you might feel anxious about making eye contact as you’re constantly on the lookout for people who might judge you, and direct eye contact with someone might be seen as a way to be judged. You may also have the urge to avoid situations where you could be judged, hence the avoidance of eye contact.
 

2. Autism

 
Aside from social anxiety, people with autism can also find it difficult to maintain eye contact. In fact, they might even look confused, anxious, or overwhelmed when it happens.
 
The reason behind this is pretty simple. Research shows that an autistic person’s brain can be hypersensitive to social stimuli, to the point where it triggers more brain activity in them than in the average neurotypical person.
 
Because of this, making too much eye contact with someone who has autism can cause them to feel extremely uncomfortable and stressed. It might even cause pain.
 

3. Lack of confidence

 
Have you ever been a shy kid? If yes, then you’re probably familiar with the no-eye-contact club.
 
When you don’t feel confident, it’s natural to fall back into some self-hiding tendencies. Common examples of such would be avoiding eye contact or having a hunched posture.
 
A lack of self-confidence can be linked to several reasons, like getting bullied or rejected as a child, or self-imposed, unattainably high standards for oneself.
 

5 benefits of maintaining eye contact

a man and a woman maintaining eye contact while smiling

Maintaining eye contact can help you make a stronger impression on others.

 
If you’ve been held back by eye contact anxiety, rest assured that it’s never too late to learn how to maintain proper eye contact during a conversation. While it might seem like a trivial thing, eye contact is an actual social activity on its own.
 
In a 2018 study,[4] researchers found that eye contact alone can affect other people’s perceptions of you. Here are the benefits:
 

  • It leaves a stronger impression on people and makes them pay more attention to what you’re saying.
  •  

  • It helps other people remember more of what you said.
  •  

  • It builds trust and they’re more likely to believe you.
  •  

  • It conveys your confidence and intelligence.
  •  

  • It helps express non-verbal cues that complement what you’re saying, and people can read and understand you better overall.

 

4 ways to overcome eye contact anxiety

a man and a woman practicing maintaining eye contact via video chats

Practicing eye contact through video chats can ease you into making eye contact in real life.

 

1. Practice making eye contact with people onscreen

 
Taking small steps is key to improving your eye contact anxiety. Starting with direct eye contact in public might be too intimidating and scare you off it altogether, so practice with videos first.
 
This can either be done via a short video chat with friends or making “eye contact” with someone in a YouTube video. Above all, make sure to do so in a way that feels comfortable and don’t push yourself too hard.
 
You can also try practicing eye contact with yourself in the mirror. Do it for a few seconds at first, then gradually up the duration. There’s less pressure here, and you’d only have to focus on yourself.
 

2. Practice deep breathing before potential face-to-face interactions

 
Meditation can be a great way to ease your stress before a social situation.
 
To start, try some deep breathing exercises that allow you to be present rather than worry about how other people may perceive you. Luckily, there are tons of resources available online like meditation videos that you can follow. At the very least, try it for five or ten minutes before going out.
 

3. Get into therapy

 
CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psycho-social treatment that can help you with several mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. In the process of CBT, you can specify to your therapist what issues you’d want to work on.
 
For instance, if you have eye contact anxiety, your therapist can help you understand the root of the problem and suggest what you can do about it. Little by little, therapy can encourage you to break down the social walls between you and other people.
 

4. When necessary, get medication

 
In line with therapy, a mental health professional might also prescribe medicine for you. Since eye contact anxiety can be connected to SAD and other mental conditions, you might be recommended antidepressants or anti-anxiety pills.
 

4 tips for maintaining and improving eye contact

two people practicing maintaining eye contact via talking face to face

Once you’ve found a way to overcome your fear of direct eye contact, you can find ways to improve your eye contact.

 

1. Do the triangle technique

 
Here’s a little trick if looking someone in the eye makes you feel shy or awkward. Visualize an inverted triangle around a person’s eyes and mouth. Then, switch your gaze from one point to another on the triangle every 5 to 10 seconds.
 
Basically, this lets you look at different parts of someone’s face, rather than staring too hard at one spot. This can help you feel less awkward while maintaining comfortable eye contact.
 

2. Use an anti-reflective coating on glasses

 
Maintaining eye contact while wearing glasses might be a big hassle, especially if your specs reflect too much light outdoors and cause you to squint or blink a lot.
 
So, the next time you get a pair of glasses, make sure to request an anti-reflective coating on the lenses. Here at Mouqy, all lenses are anti-reflective by default, so you don’t have to worry about shelling out extra to cancel out distracting lights in your vision.
 

3. Try the 50/70 rule

 
Being able to maintain eye contact is great, but it may unnerve the one you’re looking at if you hold it for too long. That’s where the 50/70 rule comes in.
 
It means that you make eye contact only 50% of the time when you’re speaking, and 70% of the time when you’re listening. During the remaining 50% or 30%, you can momentarily look away and let your eyes take a break. This sets a more comfortable, natural tone for your conversation.
 

4. Make and avert eye contact in 5-second intervals

 
If the triangle method or the 50/70 rule sound too complicated, you can just make eye contact in five-second intervals.
 
Rather than staring directly at someone for a long time, look at someone then look away in 5-second intervals. When you break your gaze, glance to the side casually, then make eye contact again. This method allows you to relax while still paying attention to the conversation.
 

Eye contact anxiety can be managed and improved

Eye contact anxiety can happen to anyone, and while the idea of looking someone in the eye can seem intimidating now, there are tried-and-tested ways to manage or even overcome it.
 
Above all, take this as a chance to check in with yourself and your state of mind. If you find that your eye contact anxiety is rooted in deeper issues, don’t hesitate to seek out a mental healthcare provider. After all, poor mental health can also have physical consequences, such as on your eyes.
 

References

  • “Social Anxiety Disorder”, Mental Health America.
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  • “Fear and avoidance of eye contact in social anxiety disorder”, Schneier FR, Rodebaugh TL, Blanco C, Lewin H, Liebowitz MR. (2011)
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  • “Gaze-Based Assessments of Vigilance and Avoidance in Social Anxiety: a Review”, Chen, N.T.M., Clarke, P.J.F. (2017)
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  • “Affective Eye Contact: An Integrative Review”, Hietanen JK (2018)
Jamie Mendiola
Jamie is a writer and non-profit volunteer advocating for mental health. When not typing up a storm at work, you'll find her binge-watching Netflix or meditating like Yoda.