As the invites roll in for the office Christmas parties, festive lunches, and family get togethers, it can be a real cause for concern for those who suffer from social anxiety. Here our members talk about why social anxiety happens at Christmas, why it’s not just affecting shy introverts, and how to overcome it.
What is social anxiety?
“Social anxiety is the fear of social situations, which can build to be completely overwhelming,” says member Janey Morrissey. “It can begin before a social outing, remain during it, and hang around afterwards too. The feeling of being watched, and analysing social performance after an event, can be really distressing for some.
“Social anxiety happens especially over the festive period because social situations are much more frequent and the expectation to attend parties and events is much stronger. Office Christmas parties are planned in advance and the anticipation and lead up can be terrifying for those who suffer from social anxiety. Also, Christmas throws together social groups who wouldn’t normally interact, which can be worrying for some. Combine this with the fact that family gatherings often happen in close, confined spaces where those who deal with social anxiety feel less able to escape, and it is a difficult mix of factors.”
Not just for introverts
Cheshire based psychotherapist, counsellor and member, Louise Tyler, says that often people confuse social anxiety with being an introvert.
“Many people think of someone having social anxiety as being introverted or a bit shy. But social anxiety is a persistent, overwhelming fear of socialising, meeting new people or speaking publicly,” says Louise. “People with social anxiety will try to avoid almost all social situations, and instead create a vicious cycle of increased fear, disconnection, and excessive inward focus. If forced into social situations, there is usually chronic anxiety about how others will perceive them, excessive self-monitoring, overly harsh self-criticism, and comparison.
Strong negativity bias
Louise also says that sufferers of social anxiety tend to have a strong negativity bias when evaluating social interactions and tend to pick up on signs of potential rejection more quickly than others.
“Like with many other types of anxiety, this is an evolutionary alarm system that early humans depended on other people for their survival. They needed to be hyper vigilant for threats to their safety in the form of rejection, ostracism, or actual danger. However, in modern life, this alarm system can become a nuisance and detrimental when it is too highly tuned.”
Louise also adds that low self-esteem is actually closely connected to social anxiety.
“Self-worth becomes very attached to how a person thinks others perceive them. Someone with low self-esteem usually presumes that everyone else has got it ‘all together’ and they compare themselves unfavourably. But no one is born with low self-esteem,” says Louise.
“Our self-esteem develops as a belief system about ourselves as we grow up, and is based on various messages we get from parents, school, peers, society and culture. These messages can be positive but issues arise when they relate to more negative experiences such as criticism, comparison, bullying or shaming. Social anxiety is often a remembered response to earlier experiences when we understandably felt unsafe.”
Experts top tips
Here are our experts’ top six tips to help you overcome your social anxiety this Christmas:
1. Prepare before Christmas
“Before the invites to parties and gatherings come flooding in for the festive season, slowly prepare yourself by exposing yourself to situations that are not overly challenging but require you to step out of your comfort zone a little,” says Louise Tyler. “This could mean starting up a conversation with a colleague or someone in a queue or shop. Build up gradually to more difficult situations.”
2. Don’t say yes to everything
“Try to think about the events you really want to attend, and those you might avoid if you are feeling anxious”, says Janey Morrissey. “You don’t need to people please at the expense of recharging your social batteries.”
3. Be yourself
“Let someone who is at the party know that you are struggling (ideally in advance of the event) so that you have an ally who is there to help if you need them,” continues Janey.
“People are drawn to authenticity, so tell people that you feel nervous - you will be surprised how many people tell you that they are feeling the same,” adds Louise. “Just try to chat normally as you would to family or a close friend, often social anxiety is made worse by overthinking your role in the interaction.”
4. Try beathing techniques
“Before you go to an event, or if you’re finding the event overwhelming, use deep breathing techniques to calm your mind and body. They can also be incredibly useful when the feelings of embarrassment caused by social anxiety arise,” says Janey.
5. Quieten your inner critic
“Try to remember your inner critic will be really cruel when you’re having a bout of social anxiety, and paranoid thoughts can build,” says Janey. “Concentrate on what people are actually saying to you, rather than placing interpretation onto their words. We can be cruelest to ourselves in post-event-analysis when we are suffering from social anxiety.”
“Remember that everyone you see is just ‘surviving’ the social situation in the best way they can,” adds Louise. “It’s more than likely that they won’t even notice what you or other people are saying or doing, they are far too busy concentrating on themselves. Some will appear more confident while doing so, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also feel anxious. The key is to be able to turn the volume down on your anxiety so that it doesn’t become crippling.
“Notice your level of anxiety and remember that your brain has been shaped by evolution to become fearful of perceived social rejection. Use your rational mind to convince your primitive brain that you’re not in danger. If you perceive something as a social threat – for example, that someone is judging your conversation or appearance- ask yourself if your brain may be making too much of it.”
6. Work with a counsellor
“Social anxiety can also be the result of certain personality traits or cognitive distortions,” says Louise Tyler. “Someone with social anxiety is more likely to have some of the perfectionist thinking, overly vigilant negativity bias or tough inner criticism of depression, and/or some of the ‘all or nothing’ mindset, catastrophic thinking or personalising of anxiety. Working with a counsellor to help understand and manage these exaggerated thinking patterns can be very helpful.
“Even though as adults we generally have much more control over our own experiences and who we invite into our lives, social anxiety can stem from times that we felt ‘in danger’ – for example, having been bullied or ostracised previously. There may be understandably a hyper-vigilance to signs of rejection, inadequacy, and disapproval even when non are evident. Working with a counsellor to process these past experiences can be helpful.”
Our member Lou Baker explains what social anxiety is, how you can overcome a fear of social situations and how counselling can help you cope.
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