How to Survive the Holidays When You Have Social Anxiety

This common condition doesn’t have to put a damper on your wintertime fun.

The to-do lists are long, the calendar is full and to make things even more challenging, like 15 million other American adults, you have social anxiety also called social phobia.

Social anxiety occurs when people worry about what other people are thinking about them or what’s going to happen next in social situations, says Emily Newberry, LPC, of Coliseum Center for Behavioral Health in Macon, Georgia.

“It’s about the perception that you’re ‘performing’ for others. You have a fear that you’ll be judged for your looks or behavior,” says Newberry. Social anxiety may also be a feeling of anxiousness or fearfulness in a social setting. And if your anxiety is severe, it may start to interfere with your regular daily routines, occupational performance, friendships and sleep.

Social anxiety affects everyone a little differently, but there are a few common signs.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms below, you may have social anxiety.

  • You feel anxious when having to be around new people  
  • You feel self-conscious in front of people and worry about feeling criticized, rejected or teased
  • You avoid places that will have a lot of people   
  • You worry for days or weeks about an event you have coming up
  • You feel insecure or out of place when you’re in social settings
  • It’s difficult to make new friends or maintain current friendships
  • You begin to blush, sweat, tremble or feel nauseous when you’re around other people  
  • You experience fear, nervousness or a racing heart beat in social situations

8 ways to relieve social anxiety at holiday parties

Are parties, social gatherings and family celebrations in your future this holiday season? Newberry’s biggest piece of advice: get out there. Skipping the party and staying home is even more isolating and may dredge up more negative emotions.

These techniques can help you navigate social celebrations this holiday season:  

1. Be an observer

If you're afraid or anxious when you get to an event, you can be an active observer, says Newberry. “Just take it as an opportunity to people watch because it can alleviate some of the stress. When you see people acting silly or doing funny things, it can actually decrease your own anxiety.”

2. Prepare in advance

People who have social anxiety think about the social event weeks and months before it occurs, says Newberry. And worrying over it for an extended amount of time creates even more anxiety.

But it may help to prepare yourself for casual conversations beforehand. Think of some questions you can ask people to get conversations started. You can ask people about their family, kids, jobs, sporting events, and you can even compliment them on what they’re wearing. “People love to talk about themselves and this could be a big time filler,” says Newberry.

It’s also beneficial to practice calming techniques before you go in. Deep breathing and muscle exercises will relax your entire body and reduce your anxiety. Hold your breath for a few seconds before letting it go slowly.

“I teach people to tense all of their muscles and hold them like that as long as they can. Do a quick body scan, and recognize that all of your muscles are as tight as you can make them. Then slowly release,” suggests Newberry.

Try these exercises while you’re in the car or commuting to the party. If you get tense during the party, politely excuse yourself and do some deep breathing in another private room or even the bathroom.

3. Offer to lend a hand  

Don’t worry if you don’t feel comfortable hopping from conversation to conversation, you don’t have to force yourself to be a social butterfly. You can still stay engaged without having to do a lot of socializing. Ask the host if they want any help in the kitchen refilling the snacks, or help with clean up.

4. Be open about it

Most people don’t want others to know about the anxiety they’re experiencing, but Newberry says it’s better to be open about it. “Find someone that you can trust and tell them that you’re feeling anxious,” she says. Others will usually chime in and admit they are dealing with the same issue.

“Sharing that you’re dealing with social anxiety can normalize the feelings that you’re having and lighten the situation, so you don’t feel so alone,” explains Newberry.

5. Grab a friend

Having someone to lean on at the party can be very helpful. “Take a friend you can trust, and someone that knows you’re experiencing anxiety.” You want someone you feel comfortable talking about it with by your side, and a companion will also give you someone to socialize with throughout the event.

6. Take a walk outside

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, taking a walk outside will help calm your nerves. “Take a deep breath of fresh, cool air and remove yourself from the situation for a few minutes,” says Newberry. You’ll feel much better when you go back in.  

7. Meditate

We’re not suggesting you bust out a yoga mat on the middle of the dance floor, but a few minutes of meditation is really just a time of mindfulness that brings you back in to the moment, says Newberry. Meditation is better served as part of your daily routine, but if your anxiety at a party becomes overwhelming, it’s quite alright to take some time for yourself in the moment.

“You can wear a textured bracelet and roll it through your fingers while you try to control your breathing. This can help ground you to the moment when you begin to feel overwhelmed. When we are anxious, we tend to feel comforted by keeping our hands busy.” If there is a picture on the wall, look at the picture and imagine what it would be like to be a part of the scene. “Practicing these techniques will take you out of your head and allow you to focus on something very specific.”

Newberry says many people don’t recognize how their bodies react to anxiety until it’s too late, and then they panic. By taking some time to meditate, your breathing will start to slow down and you’ll pay more attention to your body. 

8.  Don’t use alcohol as a crutch  

Turning to substances such as alcohol or pills just to get through a social event can be dangerous. Many holiday parties are going to have booze, and it’s okay to drink in moderation. But if you can’t go to a social event unless you’re drinking, or you have to take a pill to feel relaxed enough to get through the event, you may need to seek help for your anxiety.

Social anxiety is a serious and very common disorder, but it doesn’t have to cast a shadow over your holiday celebrations. If you’re having trouble managing the condition on your own, see your healthcare provider to discuss the treatments like therapy or medication that may help.

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