Braving crowded stores to find the perfect gifts, family gatherings with relatives from far flung places you see only once a year, busy irregular schedules and traveling and decorating and wrapping presents and preparing food, and, of course, don’t forget the office holiday party.
’Tis the season…to be anxious.
With all these holiday activities to worry about, for many people, an office party may seem like a blip on the radar, approached with a combination of obligation, resignation, and for some, maybe even a little excitement. But if you live with anxiety, work holiday parties are probably high on the list of seasonal stressors. And you’re definitely not alone.
I spend most of the year in a cubicle minding my own business, interacting with my small work team, and saying hello politely to people in other departments when we pass in the hallways. But at the office holiday party, suddenly I am thrown onto what feels like center stage, naked, holding only a drink instead of a work document to grease the wheels of conversation. Cue my anxiety.
Why Holiday Parties Make Us Anxious
An office holiday party can actually create the perfect storm for anxiety flare ups.
“If you can imagine walking around a party and having a spotlight shine on you with sort of a microphone in front of you, that might be how someone with social anxiety experiences it,” says Nina Rifkind, a New Jersey-based licensed clinical social worker and clinical fellow for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “It can really be like a minefield.…There are just so many worst-case scenarios going through their mind.”
The pressure of making competent conversation, not knowing where to sit or stand, feeling like all the attention is on you, worrying about people judging what you eat or look like, having to meet new people, the fear of being left awkwardly on your own…The list of anxieties that may come up is a long one.
This also extends to feeling like there’s an expectation to approach the holidays with festive joy rather than a sense of trepidation. Anxiety can make this almost impossible, which just makes it more difficult.
“Everyone’s expected to be celebratory and festive,” says Rifkind. “If you’re just worried about making it through the night without embarrassing yourself or feeling like you have to run out…it’s a lot of pressure to feel even more like you’re expected to present in a certain way. That can be really difficult for people who struggle with anxiety.”
So what do we do?
For me, one of the greatest ways I combat anxiety in any situation is to have a plan ahead of time. This gives me a sense of control, which greatly reduces the impact of the anxiety response. For an office holiday party, there are a number of ways you can prepare.
1. Find A Safe Person
If you are on friendly terms with a few people at work, consider confiding in one or two people who will also be at the party that you struggle with anxiety. Even better if you can bring a plus-one, either a partner or friend.
If you can identify a person like this, Rifkind recommends saying something like, “Listen, this is really challenging for me. So can you just kind of keep and eye on me, and maybe you’ll be my safe place person if I need to check in.”
This way you know there will always be a person you can sidle up to when you’re feeling awkward or ask to come take a quick break with you so you don’t feel weird heading off on your own.
2. Scope Out The Area
Take time to scope out the area. If the party is at your office, you’ll already be familiar with the space, but if it’s at a different location, Rifkind recommends doing a little investigating to get familiar and know where to go if you need a breather, like a quick trip to the restroom, or outside.
And don’t be afraid to actually take breaks when you need them during the event. If you’re getting overwhelmed or experiencing other symptoms of anxiety such as trembling, nausea, feelings of panic, difficulty breathing, or sweating, take a few moments to recenter yourself by stepping out of the situation.
3. Prepare Questions Ahead of Time
Point blank, people love talking about themselves. Not only does this fact help relieve the pressure of feeling you’re constantly in the spotlight — in reality the other person is most likely worried about their own appearance — but it provides an opportunity for advance preparation.
“Be ready to ask a lot of questions of people about themselves because typically, people love to talk about themselves,” says Rifkind. “That’s an easy way to get a conversation going.”
For co-workers you might not know as well, you can always ask about the area they live in, about pets or children, or even what great TV shows and movies they have seen recently. You could also ask about people’s upcoming holiday plans, whether they intend to travel or have family in the area. You might even go as far as writing down your questions and practicing them in advance so you feel more comfortable at the event.
4. Set Goals For Yourself
When you’re dealing with an office party, set realistic expectations for yourself. This means not running out the door after only five minutes, and it also means not forcing yourself to make it through the whole party. Set goals for when you might graciously leave the evening at various points and see how comfortable you are when you reach those markers.
For example, you might decide your first goal is to stay through dinner and then leave if you’re uncomfortable. If you’re still feeling OK at that point, then your next goal might be dessert or another half hour, and so on. When planning, also have a reason in mind as to why you need to bow out early, such as needing to check on the kids, walk the dog, or meet another friend.
“If you know you have that out, and you set it up, you won’t need it,” says Rifkind on why having goals can make a party more manageable. “There’s less of a chance that you’re going to need it because it also takes the pressure off.”
5. Don’t Avoid
Finally, while it’s definitely OK to feel nervous about that office holiday party — in fact, it can help to acknowledge you will feel nervous — the worst thing you can do is cook up an excuse to avoid the outing all together. Rifkind advises that even if you can only hang in there for half an hour, it’s better than not going at all.
“This is really, really important: don’t avoid,” says Rifkind. “If you continue to avoid, you get into the spiral of reinforcing in your mind that these are dangerous situations. And the longer you avoid, the worse it is.”
So grab a friend, plan ahead of time, make achievable goals for yourself, and head to that holiday party knowing that even if anxiety makes an appearance, you are prepared and in control.