Handling Social Anxiety at Christmas
The festive season can force even the most reluctant party-goers out to social events. For those who find social events difficult, this side of the Christmas season can feel like nothing short of a nightmare. Even those who are frequent socialisers and party-goers can struggle, if we find ourselves in unfamiliar or daunting social situations that take us far from our comfort zone.
Certain life experiences, such as bullying or shaming, can make some of us particularly sensitive to negative judgement in social situations, and therefore more socially anxious. If we learned in childhood that how we come across will be criticised or ridiculed, then it makes sense that we will feel sensitive, vulnerable and fearful when entering unknown social situations in adulthood. Even if our rational mind can challenge our early learning, our sense of threat and unease in a social context can remain.
The thought process underlying social anxiety tends to feature a level of anticipation about being negatively judged by other people. This often includes reading the mind of others (“they think I am boring”), and jumping to conclusions about how we are coming across (“I sound stupid/ I have nothing interesting or intelligent to say/ I am making a fool of myself”).
When we are in this stance of negative thinking, we see ourselves as vulnerable and under threat, and this triggers what is known as the “fight or flight” response in our bodies. The fight or flight response is activated any time we experience threat (either real or imagined). One of the physical effects of the fight or flight response is that our breathing becomes shallow, and this quickly causes an imbalance in our physiology. In addition to this, our heart starts to beat faster, we might start to sweat, go red in the face, and find that our mind has gone blank.
With our minds caught up in negative thinking and our bodies out of balance, we try and gain some control by monitoring our bodies and our behaviour. We become overly-focused on how we seem in the eyes of others, and this makes us become even more self-conscious, fuelling our negative thinking further, and intensifying the physical response. The cycle advances, and our fears and worries about socialising end up being confirmed.
Those of us who have been in this situation often enough will have come up with strategies to prevent having to go through the ordeal of socialising wherever possible. Perhaps the most tried-and-tested coping method for social anxiety is simply to avoid social situations as much as possible – why put yourself through it?! But if we do that, we can end up missing out on opportunities to connect, on important occasions and on events that, social anxiety aside, could be really enjoyable. We also miss out on the chance to experience ourselves as successful in any social context, so we don’t ever get to dis-prove our earlier learning associating social situations with threat.
With all that in mind, it is easy to see why there is another strategy many of us have used to manage social anxiety: Alcohol can temporarily reduce the sense of threat of a social situation, lower our inhibitions, and help us feel more at ease. Unfortunately, this can lead to extreme over-indulgence, and for those of us prone to self-criticism and shame, this approach can cause deep regret, fear and embarrassment that can make social anxiety worse than it was to start with.
So what can we do to keep social anxiety processes in check? First, it is important to be aware of what negative thoughts our minds tend to give us when we feel threat in social situations. If we can anticipate what our mind is likely to give us, this gives us a better chance of recognising our thoughts as thoughts, rather than facts, when they do occur. Is your mind prone to presenting you with negative statements about how you are coming across? Forewarned is forearmed, so anticipate what your mind will give you, and notice it as it happens, without getting caught up in the content of the negative thoughts.
Physical responses are a big part of the cycle of social anxiety. It is therefore important that we have strategies to regulate our bodies effectively. The single best way to bring our bodies back into balance is through breathing. Practice breathing in for a count of five, holding for a count of five and releasing for a count of five, on repeat. You might feel awkward doing it, but no one around you will notice and it will work fairly quickly. By focusing on the breathing, you bring your attention to what is happening right now, and this takes your mind’s focus away from negative thoughts and from monitoring yourself. Pressing your feet into the floor, or bringing the palms of your hands together and noticing the sensation of doing that for a few seconds, creates a similar grounding effect.
Excessive focus on ourselves – our bodies, our voices, how we are coming across – is also central to maintaining social anxiety. The easiest way to address this is to consciously and deliberately turn your focus outward, onto the people around you. Instead of focusing on how you are coming across, notice something about the person or people around you. It may seem obvious, but try and really listen to anyone you are in conversation with. As well as forcing you to turn your focus towards them, this also helps you make a genuine connection with that person, which will allow conversation to unfold naturally.
We make fools of ourselves at social events all the time, and especially at Christmas parties. So if it happens, be gentle and forgiving towards yourself as much as you can. Also remember, it is unlikely you are the only one struggling socially at an event. So if you are at a party or gathering, take a look around and see if you notice anybody looking fearful, anxious or lonely. Perhaps they would appreciate your help to get the conversation going.