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Eye Contact Anxiety: How to Overcome

Kristin Hall

Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Rachel Sacks

Updated 12/30/2022

For many, locking eyes with another person can feel impossible and may result in a wave of anxiousness. Eye contact anxiety can be a symptom of certain anxiety disorders and impacts social interactions and quality of life.

Many things can make us feel nervous, anxious or worried. The idea of public speaking in a crowded room makes some people sweat and their hearts beat faster.

For others, their mind plays a constant loop of anxiety about work or relationship issues. This excessive fear of direct eye contact can even lead to social phobias, making it hard to interact with others.

If you experience anxiety when making eye contact with others, you’re in the right place. We’ll go over why this happens and how to get rid of eye contact anxiety.

To better understand eye contact anxiety, let’s discuss the basics of anxiety and why some people might feel nervous when holding a direct eye gaze with someone else.

Anxiety is the mind and body’s response to stress. When dealing with a stressful event or issue, we feel worried, uneasy or fearful. When the stressor is gone, we feel calm and collected again.

But for those with anxiety disorders, the fear or worry doesn’t go away and can cause many physical and psychological symptoms.

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions that negatively impact someone’s life, relationships and work by affecting how they think, feel or even act.

Different anxiety disorders can have unique symptoms, but there are some common symptoms, such as:

  • Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts

  • Panic or excessive worry

  • Inability to stay calm

  • Nightmares

  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia

  • Dry mouth

  • Increased heart rate

  • Muscle aches

  • Trouble breathing

  • Avoiding people or situations that cause anxiety

Those with three or more of these symptoms who have a difficult time controlling their anxiety for six months or longer may have what’s called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Other anxiety disorders include:

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This mental health condition shows up as recurrent, unwanted thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Someone with OCD may repeatedly check certain things, wash their hands often or perform “rituals” to feel relief from obsessive thoughts.

  • Panic Disorder. If you experience panic attacks — frequent and sudden feelings of intense fear — along with other symptoms like a pounding heart, sweating or chest pain, you may be dealing with panic disorder.

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This condition generally occurs after someone has gone through a terrifying or traumatic event, like a natural disaster or an assault. Someone with PTSD symptoms may experience flashbacks or nightmares and might avoid anything that triggers memories of the trauma.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder.Social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of being judged negatively when out in public or in social situations. More than just feeling shy, this disorder can impact a person’s school, work, relationships and other daily activities.

Maybe avoidance of a direct gaze or lack of eye contact helps you feel more in control in social situations. Or if you have an intense fear of eye contact or feel intense anxiety as a response to eye contact, you’re probably experiencing eye contact anxiety.

As mentioned above, anxiety disorders can have varying symptoms. For instance, some social anxiety disorder symptoms include feeling self-conscious, having a rigid body posture, finding it difficult to make eye contact or avoiding another person’s eye region altogether.

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Those with social anxiety may have eye contact anxiety, especially in social interactions. Making eye contact might make them feel judged or incredibly uncomfortable or fearful, so instead, they practice gaze aversion or avoid looking at someone’s eyes.

Eye contact anxiety can also be considered one of several autistic traits, possibly due to activity in certain parts of the brain.

Data from eye-tracking studies that looked at dwell times found that those with social anxiety or autism may have difficulty or feel fearful making eye contact due to a more expressive or active facial expression compared to an inexpressive face (as from pictures).

Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with social anxiety or exhibit autistic traits, you may still experience eye contact anxiety from general shyness or a lack of confidence. Whatever the cause, the good news is there are ways to manage it.

Keep reading to learn how to get rid of eye contact anxiety.

You may find dealing with eye contact anxiety to be frustrating. Fortunately, there are ways to manage this symptom.

Therapy

People with diagnosed social anxiety disorder can find help in the form of psychotherapy. Also known as talk therapy, it teaches you how to manage your fear response so they don’t derail your social experiences.

A type of therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help patients identify the fearful thoughts that cause worry in social situations. Our guide on therapy for social anxiety has more information about what types of therapy can help.

Medication

Another treatment method for social anxiety is medication. Depending on your symptoms, a licensed psychiatrist might prescribe anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants.

A small study found that off-label fluoxetine (Prozac®) use might be helpful for those with social anxiety. However, more research is needed.

Practicing to Improve Responses to Eye Contact

You can also work on improving your eye contact skills with people who don’t make you feel anxious and work your way up to more anxiety-inducing people. If you find yourself feeling anxious while trying to hold a direct gaze, deep breathing exercises might help you relax.

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Maybe you feel intense fear or anxiety in social interactions, including real-life settings and video chats. Or perhaps you’ve struggled with shyness your entire life and have an intense fear of being judged.

Whatever the reason, avoidance of eye contact is relatively common — and understandable. A two-way eye gaze can feel intimate, personal and a little scary.

Dealing with eye contact anxiety — intense fear or worry when attempting to look people in the eyes or maintain eye contact when talking to others — can have an impact on your social life.

But remember there are ways to manage it, from therapy to address your underlying fears to relaxation techniques to stop anxiety in its tracks.

If you’re open to professional support, connect with an online therapist at Hers today.

10 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Anxiety. (2020, May 22). MedlinePlus. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://medlineplus.gov/anxiety.html
  2. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). (n.d.). Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad
  3. NIMH » Anxiety Disorders. (n.d.). NIMH. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
  4. Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness. (n.d.). NIMH. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness
  5. Schneier, F. R., Rodebaugh, T. L., Blanco, C., Lewin, H., & Liebowitz, M. R. (2011). Fear and avoidance of eye contact in social anxiety disorder. Comprehensive psychiatry, 52(1), 81–87. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21220069/
  6. Hadjikhani, N., Åsberg Johnels, J., Zürcher, N.R. et al. Look me in the eyes: constraining gaze in the eye-region provokes abnormally high subcortical activation in autism. Sci Rep 7, 3163 (2017). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-03378-5#citeas
  7. Hessels RS, Holleman GA, Cornelissen THW, Hooge ITC, Kemner C. Eye contact takes two – autistic and social anxiety traits predict gaze behavior in dyadic interaction. Journal of Experimental
  8. Psychopathology. 2018;9(2). Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.5127/jep.062917
  9. Van Ameringen, M., Mancini, C., & Streiner, D. L. (1993). Fluoxetine efficacy in social phobia. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 54(1), 27–32. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8428894/
  10. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. (n.d.). Harvard Health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Kristin Hall, FNP

Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership. 

She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH

Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare. 

Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.

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