What can you do to cope with social anxiety at Thanksgiving?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) report that 6.8 percent of all adults in the United States experience social anxiety — also known as "social phobia" — each year. Of these, 29.9 percent of cases are classed as "severe."
Social anxiety is defined as an "intense, persistent fear of being [...] judged by others," and standing out from the crowd. People who live with this disorder may struggle with school, work, and various other social situations such as parties, weddings, and other family celebrations, as they are constantly — and painfully — self-aware, scared of doing or saying the wrong thing.
In social anxiety, words and gestures are blown out of proportion, and individuals fear that the smallest thing that they've said or done may severely impact the way that others see them. This fear can become debilitating and put people with this type of anxiety off from attending events that others take great pleasure in.
With Thanksgiving drawing ever nearer, households across the U.S. are getting ready to celebrate love and gratitude with family members and friends. But how can you let these warm feelings shine, and how can you enjoy the event, if being around people makes you so anxious?
Below, we look at some methods that may help you to keep social anxiety manageable, so you can begin to relax a little and enjoy yourself this Thanksgiving.
1. Prepare in advance
If you already know that you'll have to be around a large group of people — including relatives who you haven't seen in months or years, or new girlfriends and boyfriends you've never even met — then it's probably a good idea to do a little mental and practical preparation.
For instance, you may want to engage in something relaxing and enjoyable beforehand, such as meditation or breathing exercises. Many studies suggest that meditation and mindfulness techniques are effective in reducing stress and worry.
A useful breathing exercise for anxiety is to take a breath in, slowly, maybe counting to five, and feel the air fill your belly. Then, release the breath just as slowly, feeling first your belly and then your chest deplete completely. Repeat this a few times, until the tension in your body eases a little, and you feel more relaxed.
You may want to prepare a list of potential conversation topics in advance. If you get people talking about themselves — their children, pets, jobs, projects, and so forth — then you'll be placing them in the limelight, and you won't have to worry about your own performance.
Research has suggested that people with social anxiety tend to focus too much on the impression that they might leave on someone else. Switching the focus to other people — what they've been doing, what kind of things they enjoy, or what they plan to do come next weekend — can help to disperse some of that heavy self-consciousness.
2. Make sure you a have a 'job' to do
Speaking of focusing on someone else, psychologist Anita Sanz — who had to cope with social anxiety for many years herself — explains that "giving herself a job to do" in a social setting has often helped her to alleviate anxiety.
In an interview, she explains that a sense of purpose allows her to forget that she's worried about how others might perceive her.
"I have found that the best way to manage social anxiety is to give myself a 'job' to do. I substitute purpose for confidence and meaning for fear. I don't focus on how others are perceiving me or evaluating me when I am trying to accomplish something important or meaningful."
It may help if you give yourself a concrete 'job' to do, such as helping the host with the meal arrangements.
So, once you get to the Thanksgiving dinner party, make sure you have a practical job to do: set the table, check on the turkey, do some dishes, or decorate the dessert. This will keep you occupied and may allow you to avoid the hustle and bustle of the event.
As a bonus, studies have shown that performing an altruistic deed to help someone else boosts happiness and decreases stress levels.
Research reported by Medical News Today earlier this year, for instance, found that being generous and performing selfless acts activates the ventral striatum, which is a region of the brain linked with happiness and the reward cycle.
3. Try to turn anxiety into excitement
When you feel the wave of panic coming on, try to imagine that you're excited instead. You can make this a general statement, repeating "I'm excited" to yourself, like a mantra. Or, you can make it specific, fooling your mind that you're hyped about a coming event or situation. For instance, you can anticipate your upcoming hike, or an online shopping spree.
This way, you may be able to trick your brain into thinking that your anxiety is actually a feeling of intense anticipation felt in the lead-up to a good thing. In scientific terms, this technique is called "reappraisal."
Prof. Alison Wood Brooks, from the Harvard Business School in Boston, MA — who published a paper on this topic — explains that it may be easier to transition from anxiety to excitement than from anxiety to a state of calmness. That is because anxiety and excitement are more similar to each other, and closer in intensity.
"The way we verbalize and think about our feelings," explains Prof. Brooks, "helps to construct the way we actually feel. Saying 'I am excited' represents a simple, minimal intervention that can be used quickly and easily to prime an opportunity mindset and improve performance."
A more recent study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology also suggests that reappraising your emotions can be helpful, at least in the short-term, in tackling situations that cause anxiety.
4. Be in the moment, be curious
As mentioned above, being mindful and being "in the moment" can be helpful in reducing anxiety, which brings us to the next tip: try to be curious.
According to Todd Kashdan — a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA — curiosity is often key to turning anxiety into excitement, and daring to try out things that normally make you nervous.
In an article he published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Prof. Kashdan and colleagues note that, "Socially anxious people who experience high levels of curiosity, or appraise certain events as having a high possibility to satisfy curiosity, may be more likely to engage in approach behavior amidst conflicting avoidance motivations."
In the context of a Thanksgiving meal, you could achieve this by purposefully paying attention to the food — how it tastes, how it smells, and what the texture is like — as well as by listening to other guests' conversations and being open to noticing small or surprising details in your surroundings.
Another study, which was published in the journal Neuron, found that curiosity engages with our brain's reward circuitry: when we're curious about something, we get pleasure by investigating it further, as the brain releases dopamine, the so-called feel good hormone.
5. Remember, you're in charge
At the end of the day, however, it's vital to take everything in your stride. If you start feeling tired due to the effort of socializing and being around so many people, then remember that you can always make a retreat and go home.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America advise "stepping back" and "taking a time-out" if your emotions become too intense. Just doing your best is enough, and it's important to be able to recognize when you'd best spend some quality time on your own.
If you're worried that your family won't be too happy about you leaving the party early, also remember that simply acknowledging that you now need some space is nothing to be frowned upon. Admitting tiredness, for instance, won't do any harm and will clearly indicate that it's time you took your leave.
We hope the tips outlined in this article will help you to make the most of this Thanksgiving, as well as other social events in the upcoming holiday season. Social anxiety may be a part of your life right now, but it shouldn't stand in the way of your happiness and enjoyment.
For more information on the best avenues for the treatment of social anxiety and how to overcome it in the long-term, please see the dedicated pages on the NIMH website.