The holiday season can be both a blessing and a curse, especially the latter for those suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder. I am brought to tears by the stories my patients have shared with me, stories about being the only one missing at family gatherings, missed opportunities with a loved one before they passed, and the myriad consequences people experience by avoiding the holiday dinner. I wanted to share five quick tips based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that might help reduce your social anxiety at the next family holiday. For more tips, watch my video on Dealing with Social Anxiety: Holidays, Birthdays & Social Gatherings.
1) Choose a clear holiday gathering goal: What would make this holiday different? Is it simply attending? Talking to my cousins after dinner? Or staying for the entire meal? Whatever it is, make it small and measurable.
2) Identify someone else to encourage: With social anxiety we think everyone is looking at us. But what would happen if we shifted our focus from self-protection (trying to avoid or cope with this perceived judgment) to helping encourage someone else? By taking on the role of a giver, we give ourselves something to feel good about.
3) Expect to feel nervous: We can anticipate that we will feel uncomfortable and just let that nervousness be present. In our Program, members struggling with social anxiety learn that the road to success goes through uncomfortable situations that we deliberately seek out for ourselves. Many of my favorite experiences involve cheering others on as they bravely face their fears, expecting to feel nervous, only to have their anxiety fade when they don’t back down from it.
4) Smile: People find that smiling at others requires them to make eye contact and to be generally less cautious. When we smile at someone we are less likely to give off the message that we want distance. That’s good because our efforts to maintain social distance only reinforce our fears of judgment by others.
5) Negative reactions are not the emergency: There is a difference between positive thinking and realistic thinking. We benefit far more from realistic thinking that reminds us that most worries never come true. We benefit from telling ourselves that “I have bounced back from worse” or “if they are that judgmental then they can keep their opinions,” or by asking “Will I really remember this in ten years?” It’s realistic messages like these that prepare us to deal with our social anxiety and the “worst that could happen.”
May we all enjoy the freedom of a holiday spent with family and friends this year, free to be ourselves and to be ok with that.