Lori was speaking about her weekend. It had not gone well. Lori and her roommate had gone to a party at a friend of a friend’s place:
“It was huge, I don’t know how many people were there but there were a lot. It felt really crowded and loud and hot. I didn’t know most of the people there. I was I don’t know what happens, but suddenly I was sweating and couldn’t think straight. My heart was pounding and I just needed to get out quickly. I felt like everyone was watching me. I went out to the car. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened, Sometimes I can calm myself down but by then I’m so embarrassed, I just want to leave. I’ve had many evenings ruined this way. Last time I begged my friend to take me home but she didn’t want to leave. I ended up waiting in the car for four hours until she was ready to go. Now I’m afraid to go out because I don’t want to go through that again. It’s easier to stay home. it sucks because I feel like everyone else is having so much fun. I feel like something is wrong with me and sitting at home doesn’t exactly help my mood or self-esteem.” *
*NOTE: The above scenario is not intended to be representative of any individual or particular situation. Any similarities are strictly coincidental.
Social anxiety is an increasingly common phenomenon. I’ve heard a similar tale, to the one above, from people from all ages and walks of life. Some people feel that they’ve always been this way, others feel like their fears seemed to show up unexpectedly and have affected them ever since.
In this season of events, parties and gatherings, social anxiety can seem overwhelming. In my experience there are three things that contribute to social anxiety, social pressures, triggering events, and being vulnerable to actual danger. Fortunately, each of these things can be addressed in order to reduce experiences like the one Lori had.
“Everyone else is having more fun than you.” “Others are much better dressed, wittier, or in much better shape than you.” “You should have already finished a degree, been promoted, be making more money than you are.” “You’re the only one living at home… without children… without a partner.” “Everyone else knows what they want… where they’re going in life… has it together.” “No one else struggles with anxiety, depression, pain, grief or fear.” Or, on a more sinister level, “Others are going to find you boring, annoying, obnoxious, uncool, etc.” “Everyone can see how much you’re struggling with your addictions, mental health, or self confidence.”
These thoughts and messages come at us from all around. From the media, from our families, friends and from our own thoughts. Here’s how to combat them:
1.The first task in reducing anxiety related to social pressure is to identify these thoughts, not as “truth” or “fact” but as opinions. Check the validity of them. Is there any way to prove the truth of these statements in a court of law based on facts, not perceptions or opinions?
Can you really know what everyone else is thinking or experiencing? If so, you have a superpower that no one else has, and have nothing to worry about!!
2. Once you’ve identified these thoughts/messages as opinions, the next task is to figure out whose opinions they are? You might start by assuming that they are yours, but where did you get these ideas? If they are ideas and not opinions, then what led you to believe these things? Think back to messages you’ve received through media, family and others
3. If you can identify the source of the message, consider who will gain from this opinion. If people are anxious about their appearance, making more money or finding imperfection in their personalities, there is an entire economic system that will gain from our endless struggle for an unattainable perfection. The fashion & beauty industry, the car industry, the fitness industry, the liquor industry professionals in the mental health industry, you name it
You may not be able to identify any one source of these messages/opinions, you may have heard them everywhere and nowhere, so to speak. For example, “I’ve always know this… It’s common sense… No one has to say it it’s just the way things are.” This is the insidious side of social pressure. Social pressure is meant to keep people in line to avoid anarchy but it can turn into a culture of individuals policing themselves into what they believe is conformity, without questioning if they actually believe what they are working towards.
We are all so influenced by media, social media, our education, our community, friends and family it is sometimes difficult to know what we truly really believe or value for ourselves.
4. Remind yourself or find out what you really believe, yourself. Is a perfect body, a mate, a certain income, or a level of wittiness, really the most important thing to you?
If you are really unsure, check out “What’s Worth Digging For?” to see what is really important to you.
The second situation that increases social anxiety is when social situations trigger memories (conscious and unconscious) of previous experiences of feeling helpless, confined or in danger or of actually experiencing harm.
When our body takes in information that reminds it of something dangerous it produces adrenalin.This adrenalin is designed to help us survive danger. It causes us to want to run, fight or freeze. This is really useful when we are actually in danger. When we are not, it only serves to exhaust our body and create confusion in us and potentially in those around us if they perceive that we are uncomfortable and don’t know why.
If running, fighting or freezing does not seem appropriate to the situation you are in, you will want to find ways to reduce the flow of adrenalin in your body.
If possible, take some space, go to the bathroom or outside. This may not be immediately possible. That’s okay.
- Start by focusing on your five senses.
- Notice the objects in the room, notice the colours and features around you.
- Next pay attention to the variety of sounds, notice the variety of voices and any other sounds around you.
- Then, notice the smells you can detect. Can you identify them?
- If you’ve eaten or had anything to drink recently notice any lingering taste in your mouth.
- Finally, pay attention to your body and the feel of what you are standing or sitting on. Is it solid, soft, smooth? Notice your clothing or anything else touching your skin, is it smooth, scratchy, tight or loose?
The purpose of this exercise is to assess your surrounding to tell your brain that you are safe and to let it know that you do not require the adrenalin flowing through your system. It is also to bring you into the present moment and to reengage the pre-frontal cortex of your brain which is where you make logical decisions.
2. Try deep breathing. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Do it slowly, counting to 5 while breathing in, and counting to 10 while breathing out.
3. Count your steps as you walk across a room or to name the objects in the room. These ones re-engage your pre-frontal cortex.
4. Another helpful exercise is exercise. if you can actually run or work your body hard you can often “burn off excessive energy/adrenalin.”
See www.adam.mb.ca for more exercises/videos.
The third reason for the experience of anxiety in social setting is when we are actually vulnerable to harm.
Our bodies may be reacting to real danger to help us to stay alive or unharmed. This should not be ignored.
One way to reduce this experience is to ensure that we are practicing good judgement when deciding where to go or what to do over the holidays.
Here are some ways to stay safe when attending holiday events:
1.If you are getting a ride there, make sure you have a way home if your ride becomes unreliable. If you are bussing there, check how late and how regularly the bus runs. Do you have cab fair just in case?
2. Consider who will be at the event. Is there a possibility that someone who has been emotionally, psychologically or physical abusive towards you in the past, will be attending? You may want to double check to see if this is case and then decide whether to ask the host not to invite the other person (they may or may not oblige) OR you may decide not to attend and make alternate plans at a better party or doing something completely different. If you decide to attend anyway, bring one or more good friend along who will be by your side throughout the evening and with whom you can leave if you feel uncomfortable.
3.Decide ahead of time how much alcohol or drugs you will be consuming. (PS Don’t do drugs) (PPS Drink responsiblity). Think back to how this amount has affected you in the past and whether you will be capable of assessing the situation if it becomes unsafe after you’ve consumed that amount. Who can you rely on if you are inebriated or high and the situation becomes unsafe? If you don’t know anyone very well, or don’t feel you have anyone you can rely on to watch out for you, I strongly suggest you limit your consumption of alcohol to the point that you can remain aware of your surroundings. This may not be possible with drugs, so I highly recommend avoiding drugs in these contexts (and in other ones too).
If you find your are often unable to curb your consumption of drugs or alcohol in these setting, you would probably benefit from addictions counselling contact Addictions Foundation of Manitoba or make a counselling appointment. In the meantime, if you cannot convince yourself to stay home, at least bring good friends who have shown self control in these setting and who are willing to keep an eye on you and get you home safely.
If you cannot find a way to ensure safety in a situation or event you are planning to participate in, consider making a different plan.
There are alway other options. You could plan your own event, you might consider if you actually just need some time alone or with a close friend or two. Find out what else is happening in your city. It will not be the end of the world if you dont’ attend something that makes you nervous.
4.Learn assertive communication skills and self defence skills. Practice your assertiveness skills. Learn to say no, practice with people who love you and are committed to you. Practice saying it politely, practice saying it firmly and practice saying it assertively. You can also practice saying it aggressively for the times that the other no’s are not sufficient. You can use these skills when managing social pressures, when you feel unsafe and when you want to change plans or decline an invitation. These are skills you will use throughout your lifetime. Check out this fantastic article with 6 tips for assertive communication.
Take a Break!
Holiday events can be tiring and stressful no matter how much or how little anxiety you have. You don’t have to attend all of them, or any of them! Enjoy the season in a way that brings you peace and contentment, in a way that is meaningful to you and brings you closer to the ones you love.
For more on anxiety see A Good Time to Panic
You may also want to read 9 Mental Health Survival Strategies for the Current Apocalypse