Well, we are days away from the holidays, so you are most likely well into your most socially-active time of the year. Although we’re told that this is supposed to be the happiest time of the year, for many of us, this may not be the case. In fact, a North American survey found that 45% of respondents dread the festive season. Especially if you struggle with social anxiety, the thought of family gatherings and office parties can seem overwhelming, and the increase in social engagements over the holidays can be a source of trepidation and dread.

Before we delve into self-help strategies for social anxiety over the holiday season, let’s look at some common culprits of holiday anxiety. We asked our followers to list their top causes of anxiety during the holiday season and here are the top five:

1. The office Christmas party – Small talk with colleagues, or drinking too much in front of the boss are some reasons people fear their yearly office party. We may fear that we may do something embarrassing or worry about what others may think of us.

2.  Eating in front of others – With more parties, potlucks, and lunches, there are more occassions where you may eat in front of others. If you feel like others are observing you, this can make some incredibly uncomfortable.

3.  Spending time with family – Many dread spending more time with family this time of year. Particularly if we are dealing with negative thoughts about ourselves, having to answer family member’s questions about how we are doing, can make us feel uneasy.

4.  FOMO social media – Fear of missing out. If you find yourself sitting at home scouring through social media posts, you may find that the stress of doing “not enough” can get you down. Many of us look at what we perceive that our friends’ lives are like on social media and think that we are missing out if our lives don’t mirror theirs.

5.  The illusion of the perfect Christmas – Commercials, TV, and social media can all be culprits when it comes to our illusion of the perfect holiday season. Sometimes our perception of what the holiday should look like puts high expectations on ourselves. Not achieving these unrealistic expectations can be a source of anxiety for many.

Whether you struggle with social anxiety, or you feel your anxiety intensify as you enter the holiday season, here are five strategies that you can use to help your social anxiety over the holidays – and all year long too.

Self-Help Strategies for Social Anxiety

1.  Learn about Anxiety

This is a very important first step as it helps you to understand what is happening when you are feeling uncomfortable in social situations.  People with social anxiety tend to fear different types of social situations e.g. talking to co-workers at the holiday party. You may even experience the physical symptoms of anxiety like blushing, sweating, increased heart rate, etc. Get to know your social anxiety. Pay attention to which situations cause you anxiety and what you experience physically when you are in those situations.  It can help to write these things down. It is much easier to manage your anxiety when you have a better understanding of it.

To help you better observe your social anxiety, make a chart with three columns: Date, Situation, and Anxiety Symptoms. Use this chart to help track the social situations that cause you anxiety and what you experience in those situations.

2.  Learn to relax

Feeling anxious can be very uncomfortable. By learning to relax, you can “turn down the volume” on the physical symptoms of anxiety, which can make it a little easier to face social situations. There are two strategies that can be particularly helpful:

Calm Breathing: This helps you calm down quickly. We tend to breathe faster when we are anxious. This can make us feel dizzy and lightheaded, which can make us even more anxious.  Calm breathing involves taking slow, regular breaths through your nose. It is important to realize that the goal of calm breathing is to make it a little easier to “ride out” the feelings in social situations, not eliminate anxiety completely because anxiety is not dangerous and it’s normal to feel anxious at times. Click here for more information on calm breathing.

Muscle Relaxation: Another helpful strategy involves learning to relax your body. This involves tensing various muscles then relaxing them. This strategy can help lower overall tension and stress levels, which can contribute to anxiety problems. Click here for more information on muscle relaxation.

3.  Realistic thinking

People with social anxiety tend to have negative thoughts about themselves and about what could happen in social situations.

Common examples include:

  • “I’m going to say something stupid.”
  • “I’ll do something foolish, and other people will laugh!”
  • “I won’t know what to say.”
  • “I’m not as smart/attractive as other people.”
  • “No one will talk to me.”
  • “I’ll get anxious, and others will notice.”
  • “Others will think I’m boring.”
  • “I’ll make a mistake and others will think I’m stupid.”

If you believe that social situations are threatening or dangerous, then you are more likely to feel anxious. However, it is important to realize that your thoughts are guesses about what will happen, not actual facts.  People with social anxiety tend to over-estimate the degree of danger in social situations. Therefore, developing more realistic ways of thinking is an important step in managing your anxiety during the holidays.  But before you can start changing the way you think, you need to be able to identify the kinds of thoughts you have in social situations.

How to Do It

First, ask yourself what you are afraid could happen in a social situation; you might be afraid of something that you might do (e.g. “I’ll embarrass myself by saying something stupid to my boss at the party,” “I’ll have nothing to say to my co-workers,” “I’ll blush,” etc.) or something that other people might think (e.g. “Others won’t like me,” “Others will notice I’m anxious and think I’m weird,” etc.). To become more aware of your specific fears, try and identify your thoughts (and write them down) whenever you feel anxious or feel an urge to avoid or escape a situation. If it’s difficult to write down your thoughts while you’re in the situation, then try and write them down just before you enter the situation, or immediately after you leave. Repeat this exercise.

The next step involves learning to evaluate your negative thoughts. Remember, your thoughts are guesses about what will happen, not actual facts.  It can be helpful to ask yourself whether your thoughts are based on facts and whether they are helpful. If they aren’t, try and identify more accurate and helpful thoughts.

Here are some questions to help you examine your thoughts:

  • Am I 100% sure that _____________ will happen?
  • How many times has ______________ actually happened?
  • What is the evidence that supports my thought? What is the evidence that does not support my thought?
  • Is _______________ really SO important that my whole future depends on it?
  • Does _________________’s opinion reflect everyone else’s?
  • Am I responsible for the entire conversation?
  • What is the worst that could happen?
  • What can I do to cope/handle this situation?
  • Do I have to please everyone – is that even possible?
  • What is another way of looking at this situation?
  • What would I say to my best friend if he/she was having this thought?

By evaluating your negative thinking, you may realize that some of the things you fear are very unlikely actually to happen, or that if something does happen, it’s not as bad as you may think and you can cope.  Practice evaluating your anxious thoughts by first writing them down and then trying to identify more realistic ways of thinking.

Testing it Out

Sometimes it can be helpful to examine the truthfulness of your thoughts or beliefs.  For example, how bad would it be if others saw you blush/shake, or how terrible would it be if you said something foolish? We often assume that it would be horrible if these things happened and that we would be unable to cope.  We need to test this out. Purposely try to shake and see how others react. Plan to say something foolish or ask an obvious question and see what happens. Be careful not to assume that others are reacting negatively – look at the facts. What did they do or say? Was it as bad as you thought?

Examples of experiments include:

  • Ask your aunt a “silly” question at a family gathering
  • Let your hand shake while holding your glass
  • Approach a co-worker whom you haven’t talked to and strike up a conversation
 4. Facing fears

It’s normal to want to avoid situations that cause you anxiety, like skipping the office party and declining party invites. Avoiding feared social situations is a very effective strategy because it reduces anxiety in the short-term. However, avoiding social situations increases your fear in the long-term because it prevents you from learning that your feared expectations are either unlikely to actually happen or aren’t as bad as you think. Therefore, an important step in managing your social anxiety is to face the situations you have been avoiding because of social fears. Repeatedly facing those situations reduces distress in the long term and helps build up confidence.

First, make a list of the social situations that you fear over the holidays (e.g. being left alone with a co-worker at a table and having to strike up a conversation, attending a party and not knowing a single person).

Once you have a list, try and arrange them from the least scary to the scariest. Starting with the least scary situation, repeat that activity or enter that social situation (for example, strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never talked to at work) until you start to feel less anxious doing it. Once you can enter that situation without experiencing much anxiety (on numerous occasions), move on to the next situation on the list.

Rather than completely avoiding social situations, some people engage in subtle avoidance strategies or do things to feel safer or prevent their feared expectations from coming true. For example, if you’re worried about saying something stupid, you might try to say as little as possible. Examples of subtle avoidance strategies or common safety behaviours include:

  • Removing oneself from the situation (e.g. sitting on the outside of the group, frequently going to the bathroom, finding a task to look busy – i.e.: scrolling through your phone)
  • Hiding visible signs of anxiety (e.g. wearing turtlenecks or lots of make-up to hide blushing) Using alcohol or drugs (e.g. drinking while in social situations)
  • Distracting oneself (e.g. trying to think about other things, “zoning” out)
  • Avoiding sharing personal information (e.g. keeping the conversation on superficial topics, asking the other person lots of questions, so the focus is on them, changing the subject)
  • Avoiding drawing attention to oneself (e.g. avoiding eye contact or smiling, wearing sun glasses, speaking quietly, saying very little)

We are often unaware of the things we do in social situations to feel safer. So, pay close attention to the things you do to protect yourself in social situations. These strategies prevent you from realizing that the situation is not dangerous and that these behaviours may not be necessary to keep you safe. Thus, part of exposure involves reducing some of these subtle avoidance strategies or safety behaviours. Try to identify the things you do in social situations to feel safer (and make a list). Then try to reduce engaging in some of these behaviours when facing feared situations. People with social anxiety tend to focus on themselves during social situations, which tends to make them feel even more anxious. When socializing with others, try to pay attention to what other people are doing or saying

5.  Build on Bravery

The final step is to Build on Bravery. Learning to manage anxiety takes a lot of hard work. If you are noticing improvements, take some time to give yourself some credit: reward yourself! How do you maintain all the progress you’ve made?

Practice! Practice! Practice!

In a way, learning to manage anxiety is a lot like exercise – you need to “keep in shape” and practice your skills regularly. Make them a habit! This is true even after you are feeling better and have reached your goals.

Don’t be discouraged if you start using old behaviours. This can happen during stressful times or during transitions. This is normal. It just means that you need to start practicing using the tools. Remember, coping with anxiety is a lifelong process.

For more information on how to maintain your progress and how to cope with relapses in symptoms, see How to Prevent a Relapse.

Don’t let social anxiety prevent you from enjoying the festivities! Take control of your anxiety and have a wonderful holiday season.