Seven tips for party phobics: how to get through Christmas and New Year festivities
If you are scared of socialising, unsure of yourself in large groups and anxious about making small talk with strangers, then these tips from psychologists should help ease you into the festive season. You may even enjoy yourself
If you hate parties, the festive season can be more hellish than happy, so how do you manage when you can’t avoid being social? Experts provide pointers to navigate through party times safely, comfortably – and even have some fun.
Take solace in the fact you are not alone: social anxiety is the most common type of anxiety disorder, and the third largest mental health problem in the world. About 13 per cent of people will develop it at some point in their life, psychologist Dr Tess Browne says.
Browne, who runs her TalkSpace Psychology service out of Hong Kong’s Central Minds Clinic, says the anticipation can be even worse than being at a festive event.
“Repeatedly thinking about the potential future negative outcomes of social interactions, which psychologists refer to as anticipatory rumination, can heighten emotional distress and physiological symptoms of anxiety, before even stepping foot in a party,” she says.
“Distracting yourself from unhelpful thoughts via involvement in an engaging activity, focusing only on factors you can control, or mindful meditation can all be useful strategies to help reduce pre-party rumination.”
Prep positively pre party
Wear something that makes you feel comfortable and confident, Browne advises. “Worries about how you look on top of pre-existing nerves, will only heighten your anxiety. Now is not the time to experiment with a new hairstyle or look – save that for when you are feeling generally more confident about attending parties. And practise calm breathing while you’re getting ready,” she says, adding Smartphone apps, such as Headspace or Calm, offer brief guided mindful meditations to help you relax.
Show you care by showing up
Caroline Goyder, a British public speaking coach and author of The Star Qualities and Gravitas, acknowledges parties can be a challenge for introverts, but that is no excuse to turn invitations down.
“When it comes to the big occasions, such as the company year-end party, this won’t do. Unless you have a cast-iron excuse not to go, no matter how shy you feel, you need to make the effort.” Showing up shows you care.
Browne says avoiding situations you feel anxious about is the wrong approach. “This actually maintains social anxiety as it prevents your worst fears from being disconfirmed. Facing your fear head on, repeatedly, across different social situations if possible, will gradually help to reduce your fears. Approaching, rather than avoiding, chatting to people is critical. This will understandably feel uncomfortable at first, but over time, with repeated practice, will get easier.”
Chunk it down
Once you’ve psyched yourself up, how to get through the front door? Actors terrified of premieres are taught to go in imagining that they only have to stay for five minutes. Then you can cope as you walk into the room, because you can leave soon if you need to. And because you tell yourself you are only staying for a short time, you make the effort to go up to people and say hello. And once you’re in, you start to enjoy yourself, and five minutes becomes five hours. Hong Kong psychologist Dr Sue Jamieson, of Integrative Medical Practice in Central, calls this “chunking it down”. “Make a plan to only go for 15 minutes. Actually look at your watch,” she says. “Tell yourself, ‘You can do this’.”
Once you have arrived, says Dr Browne, “there are several strategies you can try to help manage anxiety. Trying to challenge negative thoughts about how you think you are interacting, or how others might be perceiving you can be helpful. Asking yourself questions such as: what’s the evidence that what I am thinking is accurate? Is there any evidence to suggest an alternative explanation? Are there any strengths or positives in the situation that I am ignoring? Using the answers to such questions to generate a more accurate realistic interpretation, can help reduce feelings of anxiety.”
Turn the lights on
Scientists have discovered there’s a physiological reason why genuine warmth and positivity has such a good effect on others. When they compared electrical activity, the signals between one person’s heart and another’s brain had a measurable effect on each other and you kick-start it by projecting outwards. Who needs another drink? Who needs to be brought into the conversation? Ask questions if you don’t know what to say, maintain eye contact, laugh at jokes, don’t cross your arms (this reads as keep out) and smile, smile, smile: Psychologists call this the ‘spotlight effect’. Australian actress Cate Blanchett calls it ‘turning the lights on’. As people warm to you, you’ll warm up and the more engaged you are, the more you’ll enjoy your evening.
Prepare and practise small talk so you have something to say. People love to talk about themselves, so ask questions about their lives or what they do, or admire what they are wearing. A little bit of flattery goes a long way.
Browne recommends directing conversations towards topics which you feel knowledgeable about, “or recruiting the support of a friend who knows you suffer with anxiety, and asking them to direct the chat to subjects you feel comfortable with. Focusing your attention on the conversation, and others’ responses, rather than your own responses or any physical symptoms of anxiety you might be feeling, can also help you feel engaged and competent.”
Practice makes perfect, she suggests. “The more exposure you have to social interactions at parties, the quicker you will combat your anxiety.”