Your Holiday Guide to Managing Social Anxiety

November 10, 2021

If the thought of holiday parties and family dinners leaves your palms sweating and your heart racing, you’re not alone. Despite promising to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” the holidays can be an exhausting and stressful time for anyone who experiences social anxiety. The endless list of unavoidable social engagements with acquaintances and distant relatives can feel overwhelming.

But there are plenty of proven strategies for tackling social anxiety that you can use to help manage social anxiety around the holidays. While some people find help from a professional therapist beneficial, others find they can use self-help strategies to manage their anxiety and have fun around the holidays. This article will share some of the best strategies for tackling social anxiety. But first, it’s important to understand exactly what social anxiety is.

What is social anxiety disorder?

Feeling anxious in social situations can be perfectly normal. After all, people are social animals. We’ve evolved to care about what other people think of us. However, for some people, social situations cause a disproportionate level of anxiety – and this is called social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder is defined as a “persistent, intense” fear of social situations and judgment from others.

Severe social anxiety can interfere with everyday life, making it difficult to go to work, socialize, and make friends. Often, people with social anxiety begin to avoid social situations altogether, isolating themselves and causing more anxiety in the long run. And if they do make plans, they often worry about them for weeks beforehand.

Some common symptoms of a social anxiety disorder include:

  • Intense fear of judgment or humiliation
  • Fear of interacting with strangers
  • Expecting the worst outcome from social situations
  • Avoiding people and events because of fear of socializing
  • Analyzing your performance in a social situation
  • Physical symptoms like blushing, trembling, sweating, high heart rate

How to Manage Social Anxiety During the Holidays

Smiling friends sharing dinner party at home

You can manage social anxiety during the holiday season in lots of different ways. You can plan ahead to prepare yourself for difficult situations. You can practice strategies that will reduce anxiety in the moment. And you can learn simple, achievable ways to engage in social situations.

Before you dive into the specific strategies that we’ve highlighted, it’s important to remember that you aren’t trying to eliminate your social anxiety completely. That’s an unrealistic goal, and having that expectation will actually make your anxiety harder to manage. Besides, some anxiety can be a good thing – it can make us perform better in social situations.

Instead, you’re trying to find ways to manage your anxiety so that you can still have fun, connect with friends and family, and enjoy taking part in the social events of the holiday season. Your goal is not to let social anxiety have a negative impact on your holiday plans – rather than get rid of anxiety altogether.

1. Set specific, achievable goals for the holiday season

If you tell yourself you’re going to go to be a confident social butterfly for the whole holiday season, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. You can’t expect social anxiety to disappear overnight, and that’s okay. Instead, decide on some realistic, achievable goals for each of your holiday events.

You could try things like:

  • Compliment three people
  • Introduce yourself to a stranger
  • Tell one story about yourself to a group

The important thing is to set goals that are about your behavior, not what other people think of you. You can’t control what people think, but you can control what you do. Regardless of how people respond, as you achieve your goals, you’ll gain confidence in social situations. And you’ll have more evidence that you can have positive social interactions – and that negative consequences aren’t as adverse as you seem.

2. Practice deep breathing

When you start to feel anxious, one of the simplest and most effective things you can do is to slow down your breathing. Controlling your breathing will help reduce your heart rate and clear your mind. You’ll find the symptoms of anxiety will lessen, and you’ll still be able to engage in social situations.

Practice this simple exercise at home. Lie down, close your eyes, and breathe in for a slow count of four. Then hold your breath for four. Slowly breathe out for four, and then hold again for four. Keep repeating this for a few minutes, and you’ll notice how much more relaxed your body and mind are. Keep practicing, and you’ll be able to use this technique in any situation to reduce symptoms of anxiety.

3. Re-assess your thoughts and be realistic

It’s common for people with social anxiety to over-exaggerate the consequences of social interactions in their heads. For example, you might imagine how catastrophic it would be to forget someone’s name at a party or to tell a funny story, and nobody laughs.

But the reality is probably different. And if you’re prone to over-exaggerating, it’s essential to challenge your thoughts with more realistic ideas. It’s not about being overly optimistic, but about looking objectively at a situation and separating what you’re thinking about what is really happening.

Let’s say you’re going to a work holiday party, and you’re dreading having to make small talk with your boss. You might have negative thoughts like “If I say something stupid, I could lose my job,” or “I’ll never get a promotion if she doesn’t like my jokes.” You can challenge those thoughts, be asking yourself questions like:

  • What evidence suggests this thought is right?
  • What evidence suggests it isn’t real?
  • If my friend had that thought, what would I say?
  • Is it so important that my future depends on it?

This kind of realistic thinking takes practice, but it can be a powerful tool for tackling social anxiety. You can find out more in this detailed guide to practicing realistic thinking.

4. Get outside your head

You’ve made it to your friend’s New Year’s Eve party, but as you’re trying to make conversation, you can feel your heart racing and your mind clouding over with anxiety. Don’t worry: even in the moment, there are useful strategies you can use to overcome social anxiety.

One beneficial strategy is to focus on the external world, rather than what is going on inside your head. For example, try to concentrate really hard on what someone is saying to you. In fact, you can focus on any of your senses – what you can see, hear, feel smell, and taste. Pick something neutral to focus on that won’t trigger other strong feelings – like the color of the walls, or the feel of the carpet under your feet. This will reduce your anxiety and the physical symptoms that you’re feeling.

5. Focus on others

A senior father and adult son sitting on a sofa at home at Christmas time, talking.

Socialising doesn’t have to be all about you telling interesting stories and funny jokes to keep people entertained. In fact, being a good listener is just as crucial for a good conversation. If you aren’t feeling up to being the center of attention this holiday season, you can still socialize and have meaningful conversations with others.

Take the opportunity to practice being a good listener at the office holiday party. When you find yourself in a conversation, pay close attention to what the other person is saying. Ask relevant questions that show you’ve been listening and would like to know more. Use open body language and non-verbal cues (like nodding) to show that you’re interested. By taking the focus off yourself, the conversation will come more easily. And chances are, the other person will think you’re a great conversationalist – people love to talk about themselves!

6. Do it anyway

It takes time and effort to overcome social anxiety. However, that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you have no anxiety to engage in social situations. In fact, the opposite is true. To overcome social anxiety, you have to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” You might be surprised by how much you can do while inside, you’re feeling extremely anxious. People are actually pretty good at thinking one thing and doing something different. So inside, we can feel terrified, but we can behave like we’re confident, calm, and collected.

So when everyone is catching up over Christmas dinner, and you’re feeling on edge, you don’t have to wait for the fear to disappear before you join in. Take a second to acknowledge that you’re feeling anxious, and then join in the conversation anyway. Your mind might be racing, and your heart might be beating fast, but you’ll still be able to compliment your uncle on his delicious turkey dinner. And chances are, he won’t even notice how you’re feeling.

This video gives a good overview of how pushing yourself to engage in social situations over the holidays can really help reduce social anxiety, especially in the long term:

7. Finally…Be kind to yourself

The holidays are meant to be a time of joy, relaxation, and love. And that includes self-love too! Often, people with social anxiety disorder can be very hard on themselves. They set very high expectations about socializing, and then beat themselves up when they don’t meet their own high standards. But that kind of negative self-talk doesn’t help us overcome anxiety – and in fact, it can make it worse.

Instead, choose to be gentle with yourself. Have realistic expectations (like only going to one holiday party instead of five). Forgive yourself when something goes “badly”: not all social interactions are going to go how we want them to. And try to use kind words about yourself. For example, don’t think: “That was a stupid thing to say.” Instead, try congratulating yourself for small victories: “That didn’t go as well as you hoped, but well done for putting yourself out there.” It’s the holidays, and you deserve a break as much as everyone else!

You Can Manage Social Anxiety around the Holidays

While social anxiety can make the holidays a challenging time of year, with these strategies, you’ll be better able to cope with whatever situation you find yourself in. With practice, you’ll be able to overcome your fears, try new things, and feel comfortable in awkward social situations like office parties. Don’t expect it to happen overnight, and be kind to yourself if things don’t go to plan. But keep trying, and you’ll be sure to make progress.

And if you feel like you need more help, speak to a professional therapist. They’ll help you work on strategies to manage your anxiety and support you through the process. Even around the holidays, it’s essential to seek the help you need, whatever you’re going through.

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