December strikes, and the holiday party invitations start to pour in. Christmas cheer assails you from every angle: Facebook floods with photos and invites, cards demand you have a Merry Christmas, Andy Williams won’t shut up about how this is the most wonderful time of the year.
The holidays are meant to be merry, so you might feel grinch-like if you’re anything but excited. But if “holiday anxiety” rings more true for you than “holiday cheer,” you’re not alone. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 8 out of 10 Americans anticipate stress during the holiday season. And if you’re socially anxious, the months between November and January can feel particularly harrowing. Holiday parties spell strangers and small talk; busy airports and shopping malls mean crowds; and family gatherings feel like scheduled interrogations.
To help you survive the season, we’ve put together this guide of top situations people with social anxiety struggle with during the holidays and tips to get through them. We’ll discuss real situations our clients have faced and tell you how they reframed the way they were interpreting the situation to overcome their anxiety.
Attending holiday parties
When a social event feels large and overwhelming, ask yourself what about the event is really making you anxious. Are you worried you won’t know anyone at the party? That you’ll have nothing to talk about? That people will judge you for dancing badly? Identifying the specific worries you have is the first step to being able to challenge them directly. It’s not actually the event that makes you nervous, but assumptions you’re making about it. For example, let’s say you’re anxious about going to your company holiday party. If you break down what’s worrying you about it, you might realize you’re assuming you have to meet a lot of new people, be a superstar on the dance floor, and stay the whole time. That’s a tall order even for someone who isn’t socially anxious. Instead, break down the situation into small, achievable goals, like staying for an hour, introducing yourself to two new people, or dancing to at least one song. This will make the event feel less overwhelming. In addition, if you start feeling anxious or self-critical in the moment, you can remind yourself to focus on your goal, or refer back to it to acknowledge that you’re meeting your goal.
Paola signed up for Joyable because she was dreading an upcoming Christmas party at work. She wanted to go, but feared she’d be overwhelmed when she arrived and would have an anxiety attack. Paola broke down what made her nervous about the party–she was worried there’d be a lot of strangers and she’d end up alone with no one to talk to. She then challenged this thought by recognizing she’d have coworkers there who’d “watch out for [her] if [she was] alone.” Then, she then set a manageable goal to make the party feel less overwhelming. She decided she’d stay for at least an hour and socialize with her co-workers. If she felt like it, she might even talk to a few new people, but wouldn’t put pressure on herself to. “It’s ok if i don’t talk to any new people,” she told herself, “what’s important is that I enjoy myself and my anxiety reduces.” Having a defined goal helped Paola successfully overcome her fear of going to the party. She stayed not only for one hour–but for five! She even danced a little, which was another thing she had been anxious about.
The small talk and casual conversations required at parties can cause great stress for people with social anxiety. Many label themselves as “not good at conversation,” and get so worked up about coming up with something interesting to say that they end up saying nothing at all. If this sounds like you, ask yourself if it’s really true that you have nothing to talk about. You probably have at least one or two interests or experiences you can talk about, but you may be dismissing them as silly or uninteresting. If this is the case, you’re likely being too self-critical. Or, if talking about yourself makes you nervous, focus instead on learning three new things about the person you’re talking to. Often, your anticipation about a conversation is worse than the reality, and once you get started talking, the conversation carries on naturally. You just have to start with “hello”!
Cory, a 23-year-old Joyable client, was nervous about going to a Christmas party hosted by a club he’s a member of. “I won’t know what to say,” he worried. He thought that if he tried joining a conversation, he wouldn’t be able to “think of anything to say” that would “fit into the rhythm of [the] conversation,” and anything he did say would “not be received well.” However, he challenged these thoughts by recognizing that everyone at the party was “just there to have fun,” and he didn’t need to “sell [himself] like in an interview.” Instead, he decided he could “use the time to ask questions of other people and learn more about them.” As a result, Cory was able to have good conversations with many people at the party. He even learned to reconsider his worries about joining other people’s conversations. He had felt unsure about inserting himself into a conversation between two people sitting next to him, but afterwards learned from one of them that she wished he had talked more. Cory realized that “conversations [he] perceived to be interesting” could actually be “ thought to be forced and awkward by one of the two participants in it” and that often people welcomed him adding to the conversation.
When you’re feeling socially anxious at a holiday gathering, a glass of wine or two (or three) can seem like a harmless way to take off the edge. But using alcohol as a social crutch can be dangerous. Liquid courage might temporarily make you feel less anxious and more conversational, but studies show that it can actually increase anxiety, irritability, and sadness a few hours later. Also, depending on alcohol to get you through social situations can actually keep you from overcoming your social anxiety in the long run. Typically, anxiety spikes leading up to and at the beginning of a social event, but slowly dissipates as you get used to your new environment. If you just allow yourself to stay in the situation and breathe, you’ll find that things usually don’t go as badly as you think they will. But if you drink as soon (or before) you get to an event, you never give yourself the chance to have this realization. Instead, you start to believe that you need the alcohol to not feel anxious. This season, try resisting a drink for the first 30 minutes you’re at a party. You’ll likely notice that your anxiety lowers on its own without the aid of alcohol.
Parties are filled with strangers, and you might be worried about meeting new people. What if you start a conversation and the other person finds it (and therefore you) boring? What if you say something weird? If you’re having these thoughts, keep in mind that conversations are a two-way street: the other person has a part to play as well. If you start a conversation and the person isn’t chatty, it probably has nothing to do with you. The person might be tired or preoccupied with other thoughts. Or, they might actually be feeling anxious themself, and that’s why they’re not talking much. Another thing people tend to be self-conscious about is “awkward silences” during a conversation. Pauses are normal and part of the natural ebb and flow of conversations, and they’re often not even as long as you think. Next time you notice an “awkward pause,” actually count in your head how long it is–you’ll realize that usually it’s only a few seconds! Finally, it’s helpful to remember that many people go to parties with the goal of meeting new people, and they’ll likely welcome your conversation.
One of our clients was anxious about meeting new people at a Thanksgiving dinner her friend was hosting. She wanted to introduce herself and her family to new people at the dinner, but worried she’d “have nothing to talk to these people about.” She overcame this worry by reminding herself that others would also be “grasping for topics to start a conversation about.” Besides, she realized, many people would be in the same boat as her; the dinner attendees were “different friends meeting for the first time, so it’s not like [she’d be] the outsider.” She was able to successfully chat with everyone at the party and felt the conversations went smoothly.
Holiday parties can be especially scary when you don’t know the other people at the party well. Perhaps you have to go to your wife’s office holiday party, and you haven’t met her coworkers. You can just imagine yourself standing there as they all talk about work, having nothing to say and feeling awkward. And what if she has to go to the bathroom? Then what do you do? Stand there alone? If you’re worried about being the +1 at a holiday party, remember that there will be other people in the same boat. Other guests won’t know many people at the party either and will likely be just as eager to have someone to talk to. If you do end up in a group conversation among coworkers and they start talking about work, remember you’re not expected to contribute to an internal conversation, so it’s okay if you stay quiet–no one will think that’s weird. And if you do contribute, either by relating with a similar experience or even changing the topic–that might be welcome. After all, this is a party, and people might appreciate a break from talking about work! Another helpful tip is to let your significant other know ahead of time that you’re worried about making conversation with their coworkers. Ask them to be aware of this, and to actively introduce you to people and try to include you in conversations.
Tracy, a 45-year-old Joyable client, was nervous about making conversation at her husband’s office holiday party. She worried she wouldn’t “be able to think of anything to talk about with a person [she] just met and it [would] be awkward.” Tracy challenged this thought by acknowledging she’d previously started many successful conversations with new people and she’d likely have plenty of things to talk about because she’s “interested in and curious about a lot of things.” Besides, she told herself, she could always “compliment someone on their party outfit to break the ice or ask about what they’re eating or drinking.” Finally, Tracy reminded herself that it takes two to make a conversation flow. She wrote “A conversation is like a dance. Both partners have to participate and do their part for it to work. If I make an effort and it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world.” She ended up having a “really fun time chatting and joking around with people” at her husband’s holiday party.
Hosting an event
Our clients who’ve mustered the courage to host or plan an event this holiday season express worries like “no one likes me” and “no one’s going to want to come.” If you’re having thoughts like this, ask yourself: what are the chances that not even one person will show up? It’s pretty unlikely. Also, remember that people like having things to do, and might even be grateful to you for bringing people together and giving them something to do.
When Katie, a 25-year-old data scientist, volunteered to plan a holiday happy hour for her team, she feared no one would want to attend. But she challenged this thought by reminding herself that “some people had already expressed interest in the event” and asking “I always appreciate others organizing events, what makes me think the team won’t feel the same way?” The event did have a great turnout, and Katie was even asked to plan another happy hour in January!
Busy shopping malls
Shopping malls are especially packed during the holiday season and can be a great source of stress for those with social anxiety. You might worry that other people are watching you, and judging you for what you’re buying, what you’re doing, or the way you look. If so, remember that most people are there with their own shopping lists and gifts to worry about, and likely are too preoccupied to be looking at you.
Bradley was anxious about blushing in front of others while christmas shopping. “My face is going to go red,” people will notice, “and I’m going to be embarrassed,” he worried. He got past his worries by realizing that “no one really pays attention to you [because] they are too busy worrying about themselves.” Even if he did start blushing, Bradley told himself “no one cares about a red face, and if they do, so what–not everyone has to like you. It’s better to just relax and enjoy the time rather than just obsess over the negatives the whole time.”
If you’re worried the employee will judge you for needing help, remember that lots of people ask them for help finding things. In fact, it’s part of that person’s job to help shoppers find items they need. Some stores even hire extra people during the holiday season to prepare for increased shopper questions. And remember, if the employee is stocking a shelf, they might be bored and even welcome the interruption.
Airports are another source of stress for those with social anxiety. Like malls, they’re especially crowded during the holidays and are hard to avoid if your family lives far away. You might worry about doing something embarrassing while everyone’s watching, like forgetting to take your shoes off before going through the scanner, or struggling to shove your carry-on into the overhead compartment. What if you get yelled at by the TSA? What if everyone notices the scraggly stuffed bear peeking out of your suitcase when you open it to fish for your toiletries? If you’re worried about being the center of attention at the airport, remember that, like the mall, everyone is here for a reason, and it’s not to watch you. Likely people are too hurried or focused on themselves to bother noticing anyone else. Even if you do forget to take off your shoes, or the scanner beeps when you walk through, it will likely be quickly forgotten as everyone is in a rush to get through security.
One client, George, had to fly to California for Thanksgiving and was nervous about being at the airport around a lot of strangers. He worried especially about being at the front of the security line, where he felt he’d be “the focus of everyone’s attention” and “lots of people [would] judge [him].” But he faced his fear by deciding to put himself in others’ shoes. He realized that “everyone has to go through the line,” and when others did he “never…paid attention to them,” so “most people aren’t paying attention.” He also found it helpful to “assess what’s the reality of the situation” by actually “looking at what everyone else is doing” instead of “focusing on [himself] and [his] thoughts.” By actually being “in the moment,” he realized that “most people are probably just focused on traveling, same as me,” and felt less anxious.
Going home for the holidays can feel like being put under the microscope. Your parents always ask you intrusive questions like are you dating anyone (yet)? Or how much money are you making these days? Big family dinners mean a larger audience for your interrogation: aunts, uncles, and cousins seem to appear out of nowhere to pass judgement on your life choices and tell you you’ve gained weight. And if you’re known for being the quiet one in your family, your relatives seem especially keen on questioning you.
If you’re anxious about going to family gatherings this holiday because you fear being judged, ask yourself if there are any other reasons your family might ask you a lot of questions. Do you live far away and only make it home once a year? Perhaps your parents miss you, and are genuinely interested in hearing about what’s going on in your life. If relatives ask invasive questions like if you’re happy with your job or relationship, ask if they really want to judge you, or if maybe they’re asking because they care and want to see how they can help you.
Meeting your significant other’s family
This holiday season, you might be meeting your significant other’s family for the first time. Or perhaps you’ve already met them: maybe they’ve been your in-laws for years but being around them still makes you nervous. What will you talk to them about? What if you do something embarrassing or say something offensive and they don’t like you? Will they tell their son/daughter to dump you immediately?
If you’re having these worries, remember that everyone’s self-conscious. Your boyfriend’s parents might be equally as nervous about making a good impression on you as you are about making a good impression on them. If you’re worried about what to talk to them about, ask your significant other about their interests ahead of time so you’ll have some conversation topics ready. And if you’re worried you’ll say or do something offensive, ask what the likelihood of this really happening is: do you offend people often? Probably not. Even if you do say something a little off color, do you think the parents will immediately dislike you? Likely you’ll all laugh about it and forget it quickly.
Gift-giving is a source of anxiety for most, but people with social anxiety are especially prone to believing that if they don’t get the perfect gift, it means they’re a failure. Combine that with getting a gift for someone whose opinion matters a lot to you (say, your boyfriend’s parents who you’re meeting for the first time, or even your own parents), and suddenly the stakes feel really high. Either you get the right gift (because there can only be one) or they’ll hate you forever. If you’re having these thoughts, ask yourself, “is there really only one thing this person would like?” Even if it’s not the exact thing the person wanted, they’ll probably still like it and appreciate that you got them something. It sounds cheesy, but it really is the thought that counts. Also, if you’re worried giving the wrong gift = permanent ostracization, ask yourself if this is really true. While first impressions are important, it’s unlikely one mediocre gift will define your relationship with this person forever.
Jordan, a 32-year-old Joyable client, worried about choosing the perfect wine to bring to his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. He was convinced that “the wine I end up getting won’t be any good.” He challenged this thought by realizing it’s the gesture that mattered, and that he was exaggerating the significance of the gift. “The contribution of the wine will likely be more important than any possible quality issues,” he realized, and even if the wine ends up not being good, “it’s a pretty small part of the whole dinner event.”
Holiday social anxiety: understanding the causes
Social anxiety is when you’re so worried about being judged by others that important things in your life become hard. It’s more than occasional nervousness and different from introversion. Introverts might shy away from holiday parties and social gatherings simply because they prefer to spend their time in smaller groups or on more solitary activities. But if you’re avoiding the party because you fear it (not because you’d rather do something else), then you might be struggling with social anxiety. When you’re dreading or avoiding activities this holiday season, it’s key to ask yourself why.
Around this time of year, you’ll see plenty of “tips and tricks” type articles floating around online that offer ways to survive holiday social anxiety. These tips can be helpful, but to be most effective, it’s useful to first understand a bit about what causes anxiety. Research suggests that one underlying cause of anxiety is negative thinking patterns. In other words, people with social anxiety tend to interpret situations in an especially negative way: more than others, they perceive social situations as going badly and attribute blame to themselves. For example, let’s say someone responds curtly when you try to strike up a conversation with them. If you’re socially anxious, you might jump to the conclusion that “this person thinks I’m boring.” But there are lots of possible explanations for the curt response: maybe the person is just tired, or maybe they’re preoccupied with other thoughts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the leading treatment for social anxiety, works in part by teaching people to notice when they’re making these negative interpretations. It then trains you to ask what evidence–if any–you have that your interpretation is true, and guides you to consider other explanations that cause less anxiety. We call this process thought challenging (refuting an automatic negative thought and replacing it with a more considered one). Many of the suggestions we offered in this guide gave you a taste of how thought challenging works.
Leave social anxiety behind in the new year
We hope this guide helps get you through some of those anxious moments this holiday season. Though the holidays may seem like an especially stressful time, it’s not actually holiday-specific events that make you anxious. Instead, it’s the way you’re interpreting these events and the assumptions you’re making about how badly they will go. If you’re nervous about holiday parties because you think you’re bad at making small talk and people will find you boring, these types of thoughts don’t necessarily go away with the holidays. There are parties year-round, and you might find these fears surface each time you’re invited to a social event.
If you’re constantly worried about others judging you and it’s getting in the way of your work, life or relationships, you might consider seeking help. There’s no quick-fix for social anxiety, but a structured treatment program like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you overcome your social anxiety over time. We’ve given you a small taste of CBT through the thought challenging examples in this guide. The holidays are a time for reflection, and they culminate with the New Year and resolutions. What could you accomplish if you overcame your social anxiety? Can you imagine being comfortable at work, at parties, in meetings and in public? Make your first resolution today: decide to conquer your social anxiety.