We’re constantly reminded that the festive period is a time of sparkling fun and easy-going excitement. While lots of us will be planning party outfits or secret Santa presents for the work Christmas do, others can find the buzz of social commitments uncomfortable, daunting or even distressing.
“Social anxiety occurs on a spectrum, so everyone has social anxiety to some degree,” explains psychologist, Dr Michelle Lim.
“But when we talk about social anxiety disorder, then we are talking about a level of impairment that stops you from doing some of the things that you may want to do.”
Everyone can feel anxious in social situations, like trying to make a good impression or having to give a speech. But sometimes, these sorts of feelings occur during more common interactions or situations.
This can mean day-to-day activities become difficult or people miss out on events altogether.
We spoke to Dr Michelle Lim from the Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory at Swinburne University in Melbourne to get some advice.
Take a look at our action-plan to see if it could help you negotiate your social anxiety around an upcoming Christmas party.
Making your Christmas party social anxiety action plan
Before the event
“Changing the way you think about a situation makes it much less dangerous,” says Dr Lim. “Consider what is safe rather than what is unsafe.”
Try to think about all those times when the worst didn’t happen and remember that you’re not the only person to have these feelings. According to Anxiety UK, 10% of the population has an anxiety disorder, while everyone can feel worried or uncomfortable in social situations sometimes.
“Understand that there are other people who might also feel a little bit anxious,” says Dr Lim. “Let other people know how [you] feel and that actually alleviates some of the stress.”
Relieve physical stress
“Try to exercise in the days before to alleviate some of that tension in the body,” says Dr Lim. It might be the last thing you feel like doing, but getting your body moving in some way or another could really help you unwind.
Clear your mind
Meditation is also a wonderful way refocus your attention on the present. “Some people find meditating really difficult…it’s like a new language that you learn,” says Dr Lim.
If you find these kinds of things tricky, Anxiety UK recommends the app Headspace, which guides you through mindful and meditative practices.
At the event
If you arrive at the party and feel a bit overwhelmed, take a step back rather than leaving the event altogether.
“Take five minutes to recheck and regroup,” says Dr Lim. “It can really be as simple as just going in the bathroom to wash your hands and then going back out again.”
You might find yourself relying on certain habits, like staying near the exit, sticking with a certain friend or always taking an object with you, like a water-bottle. Dr Lim explains that, sometimes, these habits can become ‘safety behaviours’.
“If you are going to events and you are using these kinds of behaviours…you’re always using something to hold yourself,” says Dr Lim. You might be relying on something or someone to get you through a situation when, really, it’s you who has control.
What to do if you have a panic attack at a party
If you begin to have a panic attack, try to move yourself somewhere you feel safer. This might mean sitting down or even just leaning against a wall and taking a moment. “The more you try to stop panic the more it comes,” says Dr Lim. “Think about it like a wave – allow the wave to pass.”
After the event
After the party, chat through what went well with a friend. “We’re very, very bad at self-reporting, we are also very bias against ourselves,” says Dr Lim. “Getting a person who’s objective could be really helpful because it actually pulls you out from that headspace.”
“We all have levels of social anxiety but the more exposed you are to different situations, the better you will get at it,” says Dr Lim. “It’s with practice.”
If you’re finding your social anxiety difficult to manage, she advises speaking to a trained professional. “Social anxiety’s actually got one of the most effective treatments out there and probably much shorter term than you think,” says Dr Lim.
Photos by Cory Bouthillette, Eli DeFaria, Kelsey Chance, Jason Briscoe and Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.