The holidays bring the opportunity to join with friends, family, and coworkers to celebrate. However, for individuals with social anxiety, this can be accompanied by a sense of dread as they receive invitations for company parties, family engagements, and neighborhood parties. This leads to the dilemma about whether to skip these engagements and feel lonely or whether to attend and struggle with the anxiety of meeting new people, eating in front of others, starting conversations, and making small talk with coworkers or distant relatives.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder is a common anxiety disorder characterized by persistent fear in social situations where the individual faces possibly scrutiny or judgment by others. Individuals with social anxiety disorder fear that they will act in a way that will show that they are experiencing anxiety or that they will be negatively evaluated by others. This anxiety is usually present for at least 6 months and leads afflicted individuals to avoid social situations or endure them while experiencing intense anxiety and distress.
Social anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder and the third most common psychological disorder. About 13% of the population experience the disorder, which often begins during adolescence. Unfortunately, the social nature of the anxiety often leads individuals to avoid pursuing treatment. In fact, more than 2/3 of individuals with social anxiety do not receive treatment for it and most individuals with social anxiety disorder do not seek treatment until after they have suffered the symptoms of it for over a decade.
Those with social anxiety often perceive their performance in social situations to be lacking and they are plagued with thoughts such as “No one will want to talk to me,” “They will think that I am boring,” and “I won’t have anything to say.” Despite these thoughts, many people with social anxiety disorder do not demonstrate deficits in social skills—they simply perceive themselves as lacking in social skills or being awkward. This perception can lead to avoidance of social skills and the assumption that the individual already knows what the outcome of social outings will be— negative evaluation by others and going home feeling more lonely than they were before they went to the engagement.
In addition, individuals with social anxiety tend to notice any negative feedback from others, ignore positive feedback, and interpret neutral information as being negative. For example, a socially anxious person is likely to notice any moment where their conversation partner seems disengaged, not recognize moments when the conversation partner is clearly enjoying the conversation, and interpret the conversation partner’s neutral facial expressions as indicating that the conversation is going poorly. This is an automatic bias, meaning that it occurs without an individual with social anxiety even recognizing it, and it all but ensures that an individual with social anxiety will walk away from social interactions with a negative perception of the interaction.
What To Do?
So if you have social anxiety, this holiday season give yourself a holiday gift and choose to face your fears, by going to some of these parties. But go into the situation actively searching for positive feedback from others. You have to retrain your brain to recognize the positive incoming information—people smiling at you, individuals seeking you out to say hello, someone saying that they are glad that you came. You may be surprised that there truly is positive feedback. Notice your negative thoughts about the social situation and treat them as hypotheses to be tested. Then gather information to try to support and refute your hypothesis. For example, if I think that no one at the party will talk to me, treat this as a testable hypothesis--go to it and see if anyone speaks to you. Or if you leave the party thinking “That was an absolute disaster,” identify evidence that supports the notion that it went poorly, but also actively search for evidence that it may not have gone poorly. This will be challenging at first, but you truly can retrain your brain to notice the positive information as well as the negative information.
Once you are in the social situation, remain in it until your anxiety reduces. Anxiety naturally reduces if you stay in the situation so therapy for social anxiety usually involves staying in the situation until your anxiety peaks and passes. It may take anywhere from 10-40 minutes for your anxiety to pass, but it will happen. Often what anxious individuals do is escape the situation before their anxiety has reduced, therefore, they never learn that their body naturally reduces their anxiety if they remain in the anxiety provoking situation. So take off your coat and stay awhile at the party and wait for your anxiety to reduce. With repeated exposure to anxiety provoking situations, the peak of your anxiety will be lower and it will take less time for it to pass. Eventually, after facing your fear many times, you may experience little anxiety in social situations. It is facing your fear repeatedly that breaks the connection between social situations and anxiety. So pick a few social engagements to attend and see them as opportunities for you to start overcoming your social anxiety.
You may also decide to seek treatment. There are many effective treatment options available, including medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT you face your fears and also work to challenge negative thoughts that may be contributing to your social anxiety. To find a therapist who does CBT, please try our Find-A-Therapist platform. For more information about CBT, click here.
You are not alone in your experience of social anxiety at the holidays. There are many effective options to help you to reduce your anxiety so you can begin enjoying social situations in the new year.
About the author:
Amy Przeworski, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Psychological Sciences Department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Amy earned a Bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and her Masters degree and Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the Pennsylvania State University. She completed her clinical internship and an NIH T-32 postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University Medical School. Amy has 18 years of experience in treating and researching stress and anxiety in children, adolescents, and adults and he has published numerous journal articles and chapters on this topic.