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Health and wellness

Tips to deal with anxiety at Christmas: how to get through the holidays

  • People with social anxiety disorder dread Christmas parties because they fear being judged or rejected
  • There are ways to cope: implement a game plan, set a time limit on your attendance, think of topics of discussion before you get there
PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 9:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 9:52pm

The intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, rejected or dismissed in a social scenario is at its worst during this festive time of year.

People with this disorder – social anxiety, or social phobia, as it is sometimes called – may worry about acting or appearing visibly anxious (blushing, stumbling over words, becoming tongue tied), or being cast as stupid, awkward, or boring.

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Because of the often disabling anxiety that accompanies social events, they often avoid them completely, and when a situation cannot be avoided, they experience significant anxiety and distress that manifests in physical symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating.

Social anxiety disorder affects around 15 million American adults. The average age of onset is during the teenage years. Minal Mahtani, CEO and founder of OCD & Anxiety Support Hong Kong stresses that social anxiety disorder is not the same as shyness, at all.

Although individuals diagnosed with this disorder commonly report extreme shyness in childhood, “it is important to note that this disorder is not simply shyness that has been inappropriately medicalised”, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Mahtani says 13.3 per cent of Hong Kong’s population suffers with a common mental illness and social anxiety – a psychiatric condition – numbers among them. It can be caused by trauma, a distressing social event or be the consequence of genetics or learned behaviour.

Heather Baxter – not her real name – is one of the millions of people who suffer globally. “The idea of a social event can make me feel sick, but I can hide that,” she says.

“The worst is the sweating. I pour sweat. I never sweat until I get into a social situation and then it just pools. I have to be careful what I wear, and if it gets really bad I have to put a jacket on, which makes me hot and uncomfortable but at least I hide the underarm stains.

“It is just excruciating. It does not make any difference what physical precautions I’ve taken, or what deodorant I’ve used. I barely sweat when I exercise, but when I socialise, I’m sodden and quickly.”

The problem, says Mahtani, is that social events cause real fear and dread in people that suffer with social anxiety – and Christmas time, of course, “exacerbates all of this as there are so many social occasions and there is such pressure on people to be social, to feel happy”.

That expectation makes it so much worse for sufferers, as does the fact the festive season adds the pressure of “being with people you might ordinarily not choose to be with; the whole hype of Christmas can make it massively anxiety provoking for sufferers – the obligation to go to the right function, the worry of what to wear, what to say, whether to bring a gift and what that should be”, she notes.

The holiday season might be fun, but for those who feel anxious it can just feel hugely overwhelming.

Still, even if the idea of a social event fills you with terror, says Mahtani, it’s important not to avoid it altogether. “Avoidance just makes things worse,” she says. Rather develop coping strategies.

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Try to implement a game plan, develop handles you can hang onto as support. Give yourself a manageable time frame, tell yourself you’ll go for half an hour, an hour; consider some topics of discussion before you get there so you’re a little more confident of something to say.

Baxter has developed the habit of asking questions, a lot of them, “that helps to defer the limelight, throw the attention off me and I have learned that most people love talking about themselves”.

That can get boring, she says, but it’s better than standing on her own, feeling terrified. She has also learned subtle tricks to extricate herself “when the droning really does go on too long”. If you do not have somebody to go with, advises Mahtani, try to recruit a friend or colleague to support you.

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Prep yourself pre-party by getting into a calm zone – having a walk, doing some yoga, learning the heart-slowing art of deep breathing, which in itself will relax you. Approach it by knowing it’s a finite chunk of time, it will not last forever (even if it sometimes feels as if it is). Tell yourself, “this, too, shall pass” and “I have survived it before so I can do it again”. Also give yourself permission to leave when it gets too much and acknowledge your feelings.

Do not drink too much when you get there. Alcohol may help you through an evening but you could get carried away to numb the anxious thoughts and drink more than you should. Alcohol is a depressant, and it’s likely to make you feel miserable the next day.

Remember, you can say no; you do not have to accept every single party invitation. Be selective, accept the ones that you think you’ll enjoy the most – or hate the least – as they offer a better chance of developing your confidence for the next event. Each time you confront a social situation at your pace you show that the anxiety disorder does not have control over you and you have choices.

If you know somebody who battles with social anxiety, be there for them. If you notice them at a party struggling, gently scoop them up and include them. Even if not literally present with them, remember times like Christmas can be especially tough. Give them a call or send them a message.

As Mahtani says: “You might take a break over Christmas but mental health disorders do not, and that includes social anxiety disorder.” Be a good listener when a friend who suffers gets anxious. You might not get it, you might find it impossible to comprehend why a little drinks party throws them into such a state of distress, but the fear is real for them. That is all you need to understand.

Holiday lifelines for anxiety sufferers

Suffering from OCD, anxiety or depression at this festive time of the year? Come along to Jadis Blurton Development Centre, 23 Belcher’s Street, 19th Floor, Kennedy Town from 2.30pm to 3.45pm for a support-group meeting on December 15.

It is an opportunity for you to share your struggles or just feel your emotions, in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment. Free, but donations are appreciated to cover operation costs. RSVP with the subject “Attending SG” if you will attend this event, at [email protected]

Drop by a Christmas gathering for anxiety sufferers at Beeger’s in Kennedy Town on the same day, from 4.15pm-6.15pm, at Shop 5, G/F, Ka Fu Building, 25 New Praya Kennedy Town, Western District.

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Be with like-minded individuals in a social setting, without any expectation for you to speak or share if you do not feel the need to. Pay for your own food and drink purchases. RSVP with the subject “Attending X’mas Event” at [email protected]

If you plan to attend both the support group meeting and the Christmas event, RSVP with the subject “Attending Both Events” at [email protected]