Christmas parties - A guide for the socially anxious

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CHRISTMAS PARTIES - A GUIDE FOR THE SOCIALLY ANXIOUS

At this time of the year we’re right in the midst of numerous social gatherings – end-of-year drinks with friends, work Christmas parties, holiday catch-up with the soccer team, family gatherings, the list goes on.

While it’s a social time, for some the prospect of enduring gathering after gathering full of people is something that triggers anxiety and even panic. For those experiencing social anxiety, we’ve put together a guide to help get through the holiday season.


What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety occurs when we feel anxious in social performance situations because of the perceived potential for scrutiny by others or for our anxiety symptoms to ‘leak out’ and be visible to others.

The degree of anxiety experienced can vary according to different factors including who we're around (e.g. people in positions of authority vs. peers) or the type of occasion (e.g. public speaking vs. one-to-one).

In such situations, we can experience a range of physical changes (e.g. increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, butterflies in the stomach, and feeling flushed) as well as cognitive changes (e.g. worrying, jumping to conclusions, mind-reading). There is typically a preference to avoid the situation or, if this is not possible, to endure the situation with intense anxiety.

 

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE SOCIAL ANXIETY?

Social situations can cause us all to feel nervous from time to time, for example when meeting our partner’s family and friends for the first time, or when delivering a presentation to a hundred people.

Signs of nerves getting a bit out of hand include some of the following [1]:

  • The anxiety is in excess of what others would experience in a similar situation.
  • There's deliberate avoidance of situations, for example, sending emails to the manager so as to avoid face-to-face meetings, or catching up individually with team members (at a significant time cost) rather than address everyone at once. 
  • There is a need to do certain things to help decrease anxiety in order to get through a situation. This may include drinking alcohol to calm the nerves, carrying medication to calm anxious feelings before they get too intense, or ensuring that our best friend or partner is there before agreeing to attending an event. 
  • The anxiety, and the avoidance of such social situations, is having a negative impact on daily functioning. This includes missing out on promotions because the new work role involves public speaking, or turning down the opportunity to coach a sporting team because that would lead to being the focus of attention during a game. 

 

How common is social anxiety disorder?

The 2007 Australian National Mental Health Survey found that, of the 16 million individuals surveyed, 4.7% of these individuals had a diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder in the previous 12 months [2]. That’s about 1 in 20 who experience sufficiently severe levels of social anxiety to warrant a diagnosis.

Of course, this only captures those with a diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder, and does not include those who may be living with similar difficulties but not yet identified what it is.


Right, so how do I get through Christmas then?

We've put together some simple tips to help you over the next few weeks.

 

1. Face the fear… one baby step at a time

When we have to face any unfamiliar situation it definitely helps to practice beforehand. Unfortunately it can be difficult to recreate our very own ‘practice work Christmas party’. Instead, try making small talk in ‘low stakes’ situations such as making small talk at the checkout when buying groceries, or asking a stranger for the time. If the consequences of the interaction are small - in that the likelihood of encountering this person again is low - it becomes easier to face the fear.

 

2. Prepare in advance

Often part of the fear is knowing what to say, particularly when there is a lull in conversation. If it helps, prepare some general conversation topics that could apply in most situations.

For instance, when talking to people who work, some general questions could include asking around how their year at work has been, what projects are on the horizon, and what they have planned for the holidays or how much time they're taking off work.

When talking to parents, you could ask them if they have anything special planned for Christmas, or ask them about their kids.

If you know they're into food and dining you can ask them if they have favourite cuisines, or what the best meal that they've ever had is.

 

3. Live in the moment, not in your head

We’ve probably all been in conversations where we’ve noticed that the other person isn’t quite listening. Rather, it feels like they're waiting for us to pause before jumping in to say what's been on their mind, irrespective of whether it fits with the flow of the conversation. 

These disjointed conversations often arise because we place pressure on ourselves to find something to talk about, or to find 'common ground' with the other person. And, when we live in our heads, we miss out what is in the moment during the conversation.

So, learn to listen actively instead. It is, quite simply, one of the best ways to work out a talking point. Not convinced? Let's say we're talking to an acquaintance about her upcoming holiday in South America where she is particularly looking forward to visiting Machu Picchu in Peru. 

Rather than focusing on our thoughts which may include, "What do I know about South America that I can talk about?" or "I have to come up with my own exciting holiday so I don't seem boring.", by focusing on listening to why she is especially looking forward to about Machu Picchu we can 'springboard' off her topic. Questions that easily flow on from looking forward to?", or "Are there other places in Peru that you're planning to visit?" 

 

4. Check your thoughts

We do say to ‘check your thoughts’ a lot at The Skill Collective, and that’s because we really believe that our thoughts can ‘ramp up’ our anxiety. By assuming that we'll definitely embarrass ourselves, that we can’t cope with this awful situation, and that everyone will be staring at us, we let these thoughts increase our anxiety and question our ability to cope.

How true are our thoughts?

  • Do we, ourselves, pay full attention to the situation that we’re in, or are we sometimes caught up in our own thoughts about how tasty the Christmas turkey looks or how we're going to finish our report before we go on leave? If we do sometimes live in our heads, is it possible that others do too, rather than focusing their entire attention on us or judging us negatively?
  • What is the worst thing that someone could think about us? How likely is it that they will be having this exact thought about us?
  •  If we make one small mistake – for example knocking over dropping a bit of salad on the table – how significant will that one small mistake be? Will it be the talking point at Christmases to come? Will anyone else remember dropping the salad?

 

5. Keep stress levels down in the lead up to the event

Heading straight from one event to another in a short space of time is a recipe for stress and anxiety. So, space out social gatherings where possible, take time prior to the gathering to compose nerves, and do some relaxation to calm stress levels. Just a simple case of breathing slowly in and out can help.

 

6. Be wary of a bit of 'Dutch courage'

Ah yes, it becomes all too easy doesn’t it, when the majority of social gatherings that we attend serve alcohol. A bit of social lubricant may seem like a good idea at the time, but taken to the extreme we can then forget what we have said, thus potentially creating a further layer of thoughts where we worry about having potentially embarrassed ourselves.

Also, if we rely on alcohol to cope, how can we ever learn that it is possible for us to manage anxiety on our own? That is, we become reliant on alcohol, and we don’t really face the issue.

 

 

Importantly:

The steps that we have outlined above are to help make things more bearable over the coming weeks and, as such, focus on small but manageable steps.

While they may be of help over the Christmas period, if you do identify with many of the symptoms of social anxiety described above, please do seek advice from your mental health professional about how to best tailor the above tips to your own situation to produce longer-term improvements.


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REFERENCES:

[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). National survey of mental health and wellbeing: Summary of results, 2007, cat 4326.0, retrieved 11th December 2015, https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/A24556C814804A99CA257BF0001CAC45/$File/mha25.pdf