What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder – sometimes referred to as social phobia – is a recognised mental health condition where you have a fear of social or performance situations. You may worry about being embarrassed, or about others thinking negatively about you. People with social anxiety disorder tend to feel extremely uncomfortable during social situations, and they also worry a lot in the run-up to them. Many go out of their way to avoid situations or events they know they’ll find particularly stressful.
It’s unclear exactly how common social anxiety disorder is, but it does appear to be one of the most common anxiety-related problems. So if you are worried about the Christmas party, the chances are you’re not the only one.
Why is the office Christmas party so difficult?
If you do experience social anxiety, there are a number of reasons you may find the Christmas party particularly uncomfortable.
When the party comes round, people tend to assume that everyone will attend and enter into the spirit of things. If you’re not a natural partygoer, or tend not to socialise in big groups, this will be something well outside your comfort zone.
There also tends to be alcohol involved. This might make you feel more vulnerable, as you worry that your own judgement will be affected, and others may become more volatile and unpredictable.
The fear that you are being negatively judged – which is common in social anxiety – might be a particular problem here. You might worry that your ‘performance’ or ability to ‘fit in’ at the party will affect your working life or career progression.
How can I fight my fears?
When it comes to social anxiety, often the best way to fight your fears is to face your fears. Being exposed – in a controlled way – to the situations that cause you anxiety may actually help you to overcome that anxiety. Finding reasons or ways to always avoid the Christmas party will probably just maintain your social anxiety over time. But biting the bullet like this isn’t easy, so here are some tips you may find helpful.
Build up to it
If the Christmas party feels way outside your comfort zone, you shouldn’t go into it ‘cold’. You may find it helpful to build up your acceptance of social situations over time. Start with small gatherings within your control – maybe arrange a coffee with some close friends – and see if you can build up to larger social occasions over time. If you don’t have time for this before this year’s party, set a goal of going next year, allowing yourself plenty of time to build up. If your workplace has an event in the summer, you could set yourself a ‘mini-goal’ of attending that. You may find some of Jennifer Davies’ tips on setting and achieving goals helpful.
See if you can find someone at work to confide in. This may be someone you get on particularly well with, or a colleague who experiences similar anxieties around the Christmas party. You may find that just talking about the problem helps. Or you could provide mutual support throughout what would otherwise be an uncomfortable experience. Remember, you won’t be able to take that person everywhere, and in the long term, this ‘safety seeking’ behaviour may be counterproductive. But if you’re trying to build up your tolerance of social situations in the short term, you may find it helpful.
Don’t try and drink through it
If you’re feeling nervous or anxious at a party, the temptation might be to hover near the bar and build up some Dutch courage. It may feel like this helps in the short term, but overall it’s not a good idea. Aside from the obvious health risks associated with drinking, always reverting to alcohol may increase the risk of your social anxiety persisting over time.
Don’t put yourself under too much pressure
The key to exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations is to do so gradually over time. If you feel like the party is going to be too difficult to face, don’t put yourself under pressure to go. If you’re experiencing peer pressure from your colleagues, this is something you should be able to discuss confidentially with your line manager.
If your social anxiety is causing you serious difficulties, you should make an appointment to see your GP. You will be able to discuss your problems in detail and decide together whether you might benefit from treatment.