The festive period is upon us and for most, it’s a season of joy and get-togethers. However, for those with social anxiety, these parties may feel far from fun. According to Mind, one in four adults in the UK feel anxious about social gatherings during the festive period.
Dr Siobhan Jones, Lead Psychologist for the UK at Mindler, talks about why the festive season can be particularly difficult for people who experience social anxiety, how it can impact people, and some good ways to help cope with these feelings.
What is social anxiety?
During this busy period, there may be a number of office parties, family gatherings, friends wanting to meet up more, and invitations to meet up. People with social anxiety may really want to go to these events but feel unable to do so because of their anxiety.
Social anxiety is a fear of being judged in social situations – something that a lot of people can experience. If you experience social anxiety, you may also avoid social situations completely for fear of being judged negatively, you may have physical symptoms of anxiety such as sweating, butterflies in your stomach and even have panic attacks.
When you experience social anxiety, it might be that you ruminate on social situations before (e.g. what might happen), during (e.g “what are people thinking about me right now”) and after the event (e.g. picking apart everything that you did and worry about that).
How can people manage their social anxiety?
If you have social anxiety, you may spend a lot of time saying no to events and feel like you’re missing out, which may not be helpful in the long term. Here are some ways you can go to festive celebrations armed with the right tools to help you cope:
- Confront your fears: One of anxiety’s biggest enemies is confrontation. Confronting and ‘exposing’ ourselves to our fears shows us that our anxiety can be manageable, that the worst does not always happen, and if the worst does happen, that we can cope.
- Physical techniques: You can try calming your breathing when you are in a situation where you start to feel anxious. Our Mindler interactive breathing module is perfect for this. You can also calm your physical anxiety by concentrating on your environment and naming colours you can see, such as everything that is blue, then everything that is green, then everything that is white, and so on.
- Questioning yourself: You can challenge your worries by asking yourself questions such as: Are there any people around that you do not have social anxiety with? Are there any situations where you feel more comfortable than others? What is it about these people and situations that make you feel okay?
- Understanding your feelings: Ask yourself what exactly are you worried about happening? If someone does judge you negatively, what is so bad about that for you? How will you know they are judging you? Are you making assumptions about what other people are thinking without knowing this to be true) What could you do to cope if someone does judge you? It’s not always about trying to avoid the worst thing but feeling more resilient if the worst was to happen.
- Buddy up: Are you saying no to a social event because of your anxiety or because you genuinely don’t want to go? If you are avoiding because of your anxiety, can you make a pact with yourself/someone else, to go for a short amount of time? Could you set some other goals for when you are at the social event, e.g. asking more questions of other people when in conversation?
What treatments are available for social anxiety?
Not everyone who experiences social anxiety needs to have professional help. There are ways you can start to work on this yourself by challenging your thoughts, starting to gradually go into more and more social situations and using breathing techniques.
The psychological treatment with the most evidence behind it is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can also be beneficial for social anxiety.
How can other people help individuals navigate social anxiety?
If you know someone who is experiencing social anxiety, try and have an open, non-judgemental conversation initially to see what, if anything, they would like help with. Someone needs to want to challenge what is going on for them and we can’t force them.
If they want help from you (ask them first!), you can gently encourage them to go into situations which worry them, starting with an ‘easier’ situation first and then gradually working towards the situations they find more challenging. Help them challenge their worries and thoughts. Just directly reassuring them may not be enough, help them come up with their own challenges to their worries. This needs to come from them.