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How to Overcome Social Anxiety This Holiday Season

Here are some strategies to help everyone from garden-variety blushers to serial party-avoiders get through the season—and maybe have some fun while they’re at it.

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Ready to party?

Painful shyness has affected Karen Chapelle, a 48-year-old welder from Toronto, for her entire life. While she has many friends that she sees one-on-one, trying to socialize with more than a few people—especially if she doesn’t know them—sends her into a cold sweat.

“Dinner parties are the worst,” she adds, recalling one 30-person Passover Seder that she once bailed on at the last minute because she knew the hosts were planning to ask everyone around the table to speak about what they were thankful for. “I really wanted to go but I just couldn’t. Too much sharing, too many people. It was overwhelming.”

Like Chapelle, many socially anxious people brace themselves in preparation for another forced march through a line of punch bowls during the holidays. And while most people feel bashful some of the time, or under some circumstances, an estimated 12 per cent struggle with a more serious social-anxiety disorder, which significantly impacts their lives. Here are four simple strategies to help everyone get through the season.

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Be conscious of your body language

“Much of the time, when people are anxious or are afraid of being rejected, they have a very closed body posture. They fold their arms over their chest, speak quietly, or stand far away from other people,” says Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University and co-author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook. “Other people read those cues and think, This person doesn’t want to be social right now, so I’m going to stay away.”

Antony says actively counteracting these “get away from me” signals can go a long way toward breaking the cycle of awkwardness and self-exile. Don’t know what’s actually appropriate in terms of personal space? Antony suggests watching how closely others are standing to people you’re talking to and model yourself after them. Also, he adds, speak a little more loudly than you’re used to—if people can’t hear you, it’s very easy for them to unwittingly ignore you, making you feel even more uncomfortable.

Use these phrases to save an awkward conversation.

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Examine your thoughts

When Chapelle does decide to attend an event, she spends a great deal of time beforehand—sometimes even weeks—imagining every possible scenario that could go wrong (and hence providing “evidence” for why she probably shouldn’t go at all). “Sometimes I realize that I’m panicking over nothing,” she says, and finds that people are always pleasantly surprised when she arrives.

Judith Laposa, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says one of the main ways that even capital-S social-anxiety disorder is treated is by evaluating your thought patterns more critically. This is a cornerstone of cognitive behavioural therapy, which can also be helpful for milder cases.

“A practical thing you can do is ask yourself: ‘What am I afraid is going to happen?’” she says. “Maybe you’re scared that people are going to laugh at you and walk out. But how likely is that, really?” Laposa says most people, when anxious, overestimate the odds of something disastrous occurring.

Learn to spot the signs of high-functioning anxiety.

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Practice makes perfect

When it comes to attending events, you’re allowed to prioritize and pace yourself—you probably don’t need to go to every cookie exchange and client cocktail—but avoiding all festivities isn’t going to help you get over your social phobia. It could actually make it worse.

“For someone who’s socially anxious, the best thing to do is expose themselves to situations where they have to face their fear again and again,” says Antony. In the short term, he admits it will likely make them more anxious, but it’s like exercise—over time, social muscles grow. “If you don’t exercise much and then work out, you might feel more tired afterwards, but the answer isn’t to avoid exercise—because then you’re going to feel tired for the rest of your life!”

While this strategy isn’t a huge help if you’re facing the holiday start line without any time to warm up, Laposa says you can still implement your own social self-improvement plan by taking small steps. “Instead of not going to the party, or leaving after 30 minutes, tell yourself, ‘I’m going to stay for an hour and a half,’” Laposa says. “Then build yourself up with positive coping strategies.”

If getting yourself moving helps calm your nerves, she suggests going for a walk before a party. Or she’s found that other people respond well if they promise themselves some type of reward if they go through with it.

Discover the health benefits of walking 10,000 steps per day.

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Come prepared, but not too prepared

Stressed out about making small talk? Laposa says she’s okay with patients showing up to soirees armed with a few talking points, but she suggests staying away from rehearsing or trying to stick to a script. Since the other person won’t know their lines, this scheme can easily go off the rails.

A better strategy, Laposa says, is to bring up things that interest you, even if you’re unsure anyone else shares in them. “Self-disclosure is important,” she says. “If you’re talking about something that’s meaningful to you, the other person is more likely to reciprocate.” If they do, listening and asking follow-up questions is an easy way to keep the conversation going.
One thing both Antony and Laposa suggest avoiding, however, is getting drunk to keep yourself loose; alcohol is an unpredictable crutch that ultimately doesn’t help you get over your fears.

No matter how you navigate the holiday season, Antony encourages you to give yourself some slack. “It’s not good or bad if you’re anxious or if your heart is racing,” he says. “Remember that it’s normal, not harmful and the worst thing that will happen is you’ll feel uncomfortable.”

“One thing that I’ve found really helps me is just reminding myself to breathe,” says Chapelle. “It sounds silly, but it works.”

Next, check out more simple habits that relieve holiday stress.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada