This year’s festive party season has a very different feel, with the shadow of COVID-19 and the new Omicron variant hanging over us all.

Some people will find it easy to make the decision to avoid social gatherings and say ‘no’ to party invites because of the risks associated with the pandemic.

But for others, their desire to get together with friends, family and work-mates, and to please others, may mean they turn up at parties despite their anxieties.

For some party-goers their social anxiety – especially after nearly two years of reduced social interactions – may hamper their enjoyment once they’re out and about.

We asked some of our members about the anxieties around this year’s Christmas party season.

Dee Johnson, of Mindsoup Counselling Service in Essex, says it’s natural that this Christmas party season will feel very different to other years.

“People will be hard on themselves for feeling so anxious.

“Tragically many will be re-entering the social world for the first time, having lost loved ones. The anxiety and depression of grief will be visceral.”

She added: “People in my therapy rooms are often fearful they’ve forgotten or lost their social and conversational skills.”

Do what works for you

Our member Liz Lewis, a therapist based in York, recommends you do some self-reflection and set some boundaries if invites to social occasions are making you anxious.

She says: “Identify what works best for you.

“I hear the word ‘should’ a lot from people. People feel under pressure and obligated to socialise. If you don’t want to meet at a crowded party, perhaps suggest meeting a friend for coffee in the daytime where you’ll feel more comfortable.”

Liz adds: “I always say to clients to be kind to yourself. Rather than focusing on the ‘shoulds’ and the obligation, remember this is the season of goodwill. Think about what you want.”

She says that if you feel like this time and time again, it’s a good idea to try to understand why.

“Try to identify where this problem has come from. Why do you feel this way?”

Abby Rawlinson, a therapist based in East End of London, adds: “In therapy, you can learn to recognise and change negative thoughts about yourself and develop skills to help you gain confidence in social situations.”

Saying ‘no’

Abby says: “If you’ve been invited to something you don’t feel comfortable doing, it’s important to be truthful and clearly let others know where you stand.

“Remember that ‘I don’t feel comfortable because of the pandemic’ is a legitimate reason.”

She adds: “It’s OK to disappoint people. We often have an over-sense of responsibility for other people’s moods and reactions but remind yourself that you’re only responsible for yourself and if someone is disappointed or sad about your decision, that doesn’t mean you need to change your mind.”

Coping with social anxiety

Abby and Dee have some reassuring words and tips for people who are struggling with social anxiety.

Dee says: “Try not to overthink how bad it will be, instead try visualising how you’d like to behave and recall past events where you may have achieved this.

“Masking our fears is exhausting , telling close friends or a colleague helps take the self-pressure off and it may surprise you they’ve been feeling similar too. This is more common than people think.”

Abby adds: “It’s important to remember that although anxiety may feel terrible, it usually doesn’t look as bad as it feels. Even if people can see that you’re anxious, it doesn’t mean that they’ll think badly of you.”

She says that people who are anxious about socialising often focus on things that could go wrong – such as worrying they won’t have anything interesting to say. This can lead to fear and panic.

She recommends: “Try to become aware of your thoughts and ask yourself ‘Do I have any evidence that this thought is true? And is there a more helpful way of looking at this?’”

Abby also says: “If you’re feeling nervous in a social situation, attend closely to what your conversation partner is saying, rather than thinking about what to say next. Try not to worry too much if there are silences. Everybody has a responsibility to keep the conversation going, not just you.”

At the end of the evening, Dee says it’s best to think through what happened – don’t just tell yourself it’s a relief it’s over.

“Evaluate, journal or talk it through with a trusted person or your therapist. Talk about the whole process what worked, what didn’t, what you felt versus what really happened – it helps reduce the distorted images that anxiety can bring us and evidence reality.”

Find a counsellor or psychotherapist who can help you with anxiety using our Therapist Directory.