Coping With Social Anxiety at Holiday Gatherings

Just thinking about that holiday office party gets your mind going, worrying about all those people you don’t know well and how they are going to judge you — and harshly. Your heart starts racing, your pulse quickens, your face flushes a deep red, or maybe even purple. You start trembling. You want to throw up.

Social anxiety disorder: If you have it, you know it’s real. “Social anxiety disorder – also known as social phobia – affects about 15 million Americans, or about 13 percent of the population,” says Jeff Alvanos, MSW, LISW-S, an individual and family therapist with Harbor, an affiliate of ProMedica. “I think there are actually a lot more people out there who have anxiety in social situations. It affects men and women in equal numbers.”

Alvanos says the holiday season, which ought to be carefree and fun, often triggers the disorder. “People might worry for days or weeks in advance of a party, and this pattern of worrying will actually worsen the anxiety.”

Alvanos offers the following advice for those with social anxiety:

Avoid mood-altering substances. People with social anxiety can help themselves by staying away from a few things before and during social events, Alvanos says. “They should definitely avoid mood-altering substances, including caffeine, alcohol, tobacco products and marijuana. It’s important to know that the initial effect of any sedative is physiological stimulation, so steer clear from all of these triggers.”

Recognize that attendance is your choice. “First of all, they should decide if they actually want to go to the party. If they feel coerced, they feel a lack of control. Taking back their power can help,” Alvanos says.

Seek support before and during the event. Once the decision to attend the party has been made, there are some things that can help alleviate tension before the actual event, including doing some kind of aerobic activity, watching a movie and talking with someone who’s supportive. It’s also a good idea, Alvanos says, to “show up early or on time so they’re not walking into a room full of people already having a good time.” It’s also possible to choose to go to the party with a supportive friend. Once there, it’s acceptable to take a break from the party, even to sit in the car, if necessary, Alvanos says. “People should remember that these events are time-limited, and those who attend them can decide how long they want to be there.”

Focus on others. Finally, Alvanos offers this gem of a tip: “People should recognize when they’re worried, and know that feelings aren’t harmful, in and of themselves. People with social anxiety have the capacity to change their thoughts into positive ones and actually choose to enjoy the event. It would help to think about and focus on the people they’re meeting and ask them about their lives. People like to talk about themselves, so give them an opportunity to do so.”

Do you face social anxiety before attending holiday or social gatherings? What helps? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.