I approach the holidays with a sense of trepidation every year. I get to our large annual family Christmas gathering and struggle with the small talk and the added attention in brings. How is the job going? What have you been doing the last year? How do you like the city? What have you been writing? Are you dating anyone? Oh no. The way I stutter and stammer and try to hide in a corner with just the baked goods for company, I may as well be the grinch.
While I love the festive spirit, getting to see family and friends who live far away, and picking out gifts for everyone I love, there’s no denying my anxiety can outshine all the holiday cheer. Enter the difficult combination of social anxiety and the holidays.
If any of this sounds like you, know you’re not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 7% of Americans live with social anxiety disorder, marked by “significant anxiety and discomfort about being embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, or looked down on in social interactions.”
Per Nina Rifkind and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, this leads directly to “a fight or flight state, causing physiological changes, like heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or nausea.” Of course if you have social anxiety, you’re already very familiar with the symptoms.
While social anxiety may prevent us from being 100% comfortable in all the social situation the holidays thrust upon us, the good news is there are several ways to take back some control as we deck the halls, self-consciously sip eggnog, and deal with Uncle Bob’s backward opinions about politics.
1. Positive Affirmations
First, give yourself a bit of a pep talk going into any holiday event that makes your palms sweat and your heart race.
Psychologist Joyce Marter recommended to Dr. Michele Kerulis at Northwestern University’s Counseling Center “that people silence their inner critic when they feel anxious, and instead of saying hurtful and mean things to themselves, they can recite positive affirmations, such as ‘I can do this,’ and ‘I want to be able to enjoy social situations.’”
I know, it may feel hokey to think positive thoughts. Not to mention, simply changing worry thoughts into upbeat ones won’t solve anxiety. (If only it were that easy!) But according to experts like Marter, positive thinking can at least be “a much more effective way of working to stay out of a negative downward spiral.”
2. Plan Ahead For Conversation
Like with an office holiday party, having conversation starters in your back pocket can go a long way. Consider questions such as what was your favorite trip this year? Have any New Year’s resolutions? What are you most looking forward to in 2018? People love talking about themselves, so directed questions can help grease the wheels and take the focus off of you. Finding ways to compliment people can have the same effect.
“You may feel as if people are focusing on you, but in reality, most people are probably wondering what you are thinking of them,” according to the ADAA. “Try making a compliment, which can make others feel good, make you feel good, and reduce some stress.”
3. Come With A Talking Piece
Another way to feel more comfortable about the inevitable small talk in any holiday situation is to adorn yourself with something that will catch attention — in a good way. While that may sound terrifying at first, wearing a gorgeous patterned jacket or having a cool cell phone case, for example, can start a conversation that puts a little distance between you, anxiety, and the other person by focusing on a neutral object.
Talking about where you got your jacket or cell phone case can then transition naturally into conversations about favorite shopping joints, your mutual love of a good jacket, how much you both hate the latest phone update, or comparing photos of your adorable cats.
4. Volunteer To Help The Host
Therapists such as Rifkind suggest offering to help the host when you’re at holiday events as another way to manage anxiety. Busy hands that have a purpose can ease some of the pressure at large gatherings, not to mention you’ll feel helpful and have a sense of purpose — a way to contribute to the day that feels less threatening.
Being a helpful guest and assisting the host can boost your self esteem and you can avoid long, unwanted conversations.
5. Engage With Little Ones
Let’s face it — adults can be anxiety-provoking. But at a family or friend party, there’s a good chance there may be children, pets, or both, and they offer an opportunity to take the perceived spotlight off of you.
“Children see things differently than adults,” writes Sarah Fader for Psychology Today. “They are thinking about entertaining themselves and not concerned about being judged. Tap into that energy and join the fun!”
The same goes for pets, who have mental health benefits of their own. Petting animals reduces blood pressure, elevates mood, and releases endorphins. A little quality time with Fluffy can reduce the pressure of socializing with her owners.
6. Avoid Overdoing the Alcohol
Though alcohol may be a seemingly effective tool in the moment to gain a little liquid courage, alcohol often heightens anxiety and panic, plus it can leave you feeling even more out of control by the end of the night. It’s best to drink in moderation.
“Many people mistakenly turn to drugs or alcohol to help them ‘loosen up’ in social scenes,” writes therapist Chandra Chaikin. “If you’re worried about embarrassing yourself, why put yourself in a situation where you’re less in control? Alcohol and drugs can actually trigger panic attacks in individuals with anxiety disorders.”
7. Focus On What You Can Control
Social anxiety usually comes with a long line of troubling “what-if” worries. What if people judge what I look like or how I eat? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I can’t find anybody to talk to?
“Instead of focusing on what people might say or what might happen, focus on things that you can control, such as maintaining a positive attitude, making a commitment to address triggers to anxiety, and going into social situations with a game plan,” writes Kerulis for Northwestern.
Letting go of what you can’t control also applies toward other people. Set boundaries for your own behaviors, such as limiting how much you drink or deciding which topics you won’t talk about, like your dating life or politics, to give yourself a sense of control. Let everybody else’s behavior go, because you just can’t control it.
“You can’t control how much Uncle Bob drinks or your dad’s temper, but you can control your choices, behaviors, and action,” writes Marter for Psych Central. “Set healthy boundaries for yourself.”
8. It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect
Similarly, for some people with social anxiety, the worry about everything needing to be perfect creeps in, whether that’s something being out of place, not acting festive enough, or having the wrong food on hand. We can’t control all of this for every guest, so as much as possible it’s best to leave perfectionism behind.
“While most people are happy to be around friends or family, enjoying good food, drinks, and the sight of kids opening gifts, for certain people, the thought of something being out of place, someone not getting their favorite dish or the decorations falling short, can cause significant feelings of distress,” writes Rifkind for ADAA. “People who struggle with anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety or panic disorder, may be plagued by a fear of disappointing others, or feeling that their actions are being scrutinized and judged.”
9. Give Yourself Permission To Say No
Finally, know that just because pleading friends and family may want you to celebrate at every last party and event they can think of, you are allowed to say no. This doesn’t mean avoid, which will only reinforce the anxiety, but you don’t need to go to everything either. Pick out the events that mean the most to you and politely decline the rest so you have some recovery time for yourself too.
“Try not to overschedule yourself during the holiday season,” writes the ADAA. “You don’t have to feel obligated to accept every invitation, and you may want to eliminate some traditions that cause you more stress than joy.”
While the holidays with social anxiety can be difficult, keep these tips in mind for a bright and wonderful holiday season with as little anxiety as possible. And remember — you can do this!