How to Cope With Social Anxiety During the Holidays
Those family get-togethers during the holidays may not be a joyous occasion for many people. If you have social anxiety while around loved ones, you could be dreading the season and looking for a way to avoid or minimize the stress.
There are ways to manage social anxiety during the holidays, however. Mental health professionals recommend practical tips such as planning ahead, preparing a few conversation-starters focused on what you want to talk about, and taking advantage of similar ways to manage the anxiety without having to avoid family gatherings altogether.
Social anxiety disorder may increase during family gatherings. The disorder is characterized by an intense fear of being watched or judged by others, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Those with social anxiety disorder may experience anxiety during any number of circumstances, including making eye contact, eating in front of others, and engaging in conversations.
Social anxiety feelings could be intensified around family members you don’t see often, as they might be inclined to ask personal questions or appear to be judging you or comparing you to other family members.
Make a plan for social anxiety
It’s possible to plan ahead for conversations and people who might prompt anxiety. One way is to think of some topics and questions you’d like to bring up – especially on subjects you enjoy talking about. These can take the focus off difficult or personal questions others might ask you.
In many families, someone will have strong opinions, especially on political issues. You don’t have to be drawn into or participate in these debates.
Rebecca Brendel, MD, JD, president of the American Psychiatric Association, wrote in a blog post last year that you can enlist a trusted family member to help steer the conversation away from any heated topics.
“When efforts at non-judgmental and diverse dialogue are unsuccessful, shutting down conversations that are causing friction and changing the subject is a good strategy,” she wrote. “It’s never wrong to disengage from a conversation with an aggressive person.”
Look for a temporary escape hatch
Stepping away from the crowd can give people with social anxiety a chance to recover and catch their breath. Politely excusing yourself to find a quiet room or step outside can help you regain your composure.
Writing in The New York Times, journalist Jancee Dunn told of a family holiday gathering where she escaped to the basement – only to find her father doing the same thing.
“We both knew that, even in the best of times, holiday social gatherings can be overwhelming,” she wrote.
Mental health professionals say it’s important to remember your limits. You don’t have to do everything the group does at a family gathering, talk to everyone, or be the last to leave.
Setting and sticking to your boundaries is one way to protect yourself during holiday gatherings, Mandy Doria, MS, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and a licensed professional counselor, said in an interview published in Self magazine. Similarly, remembering that these moments don’t last forever can help get you through the event. “It’s just another day,” she said. “It’s gonna come and go.”
Focus on what you can control
You might not have veto power over the guest list, location or topics of conversation for a family gathering, but you do have a say over your own activities. For example, make sure you take care of yourself in advance of and during the holiday season. Regular exercise, healthy eating and getting enough sleep generally are within your control.
If you feel you could be suffering from social anxiety during the holidays, talk with your healthcare provider, who can help you and determine whether you need to be evaluated by a mental health clinician for further treatment.
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