How to Deal With Social Anxiety During the Holidays

Even in the best of times, social gatherings can be overwhelming. If you’re feeling less-than-festive, here’s how to ease into the season.,


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A few years ago, during a prepandemic holiday celebration, several generations of my family were crammed, as usual, into the cozy kitchen of my parents’ New Jersey house. As everyone hollered, spilled drinks and accused each other of double-dipping chips, the clamor made me lightheaded.

I stole downstairs to the basement, blessedly cool and quiet, and took a few breaths.

“Hello,” a voice behind me said quietly. It was my father, leaning against the washing machine in the dark.

I squinted. “Dad? Is everything OK?”

“Yep,” he said cheerfully.

I realized we were doing the same thing: hiding.

I didn’t want to encroach on Dad’s refuge, so I pretended to look for an extra platter, then headed back upstairs.

We both knew that, even in the best of times, holiday social gatherings can be overwhelming.

Last winter, with the Covid-19 pandemic in full force, some families sat out the festivities, keeping celebrations with friends and family small or virtual. Some even admitted that the slower pace worked for them, said Thema Bryant, President-Elect of the American Psychological Association and a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. Now, with nearly 60 percent of the country fully vaccinated and restrictions loosened, all the things we took a pass on last year seem to be roaring back — and many are feeling uncomfortably out of practice when it comes to social situations. Not everyone, it turns out, is ready to party like it’s 2019.

“After being isolated for so many months, I found I needed baby steps to reintegrate,” said Dalia MacPhee, a fashion designer in Los Angeles. At first, MacPhee said, she “felt like Tom Hanks’ character from Castaway as he re-enters society. I’m definitely feeling some social anxiety.”

That’s a refrain that Paula Zimbrean, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, has heard a lot. “Honestly, if a patient tells me that he or she has no anxiety about resuming life as usual, I start worrying,” she said. “There will be a good deal of relearning and readjusting about being in social situations, and we have to be forgiving with ourselves and others about it.”

If your calendar is filling up this month, here’s how to ease into the holiday spirit.

As the holiday season cranks up, said Dr. Zimbrean, “it’s a great opportunity to re-evaluate what relationships are meaningful to us and how much time we want to invest in them.” Some people realized that accepting every invitation “was actually not enjoyable and made things unnecessarily frenetic.”

“We all only have so much social energy these days,” said Ty David Lerman, a psychotherapist with Southwest Psychotherapy Associates in Houston. To determine whether he really wants to go to an event, Mr. Lerman devised what he called a “Hell, Yes” philosophy. “This is to only commit to events where your response is, “Hell, yes, I want to do that!” he said. “If I’m not that excited about it, I will likely pass.” He tells clients that while it may be tempting to dive headlong into the holiday season, it’s important to seek middle ground. As he puts it, “Goldilocks your life.”

Sarah Ahmed, co-founder of Wellnest, a psychotherapy clinic in Toronto, agreed. “I know for me, I cap out at two events a week, a number that was much higher prepandemic,” she said. Use your body, she suggested, as an indicator to tell if you’ve reached capacity. “Our bodies are constantly talking to us,” said Ahmed. Common symptoms of social anxiety, she said, include exhaustion, headaches, sweating, difficulty speaking, nausea and increased heart rate. “If you are feeling particularly fatigued after a social event, I’d revisit future commitments that week.”

If you’re turning down an invitation, Dr. Lerman said, do it as early as possible, and keep your explanation brief and polite. (“That sounds fun, but I will need to pass this time,” or “Thanks for the invite, but I already have plans.”)

On the day of a holiday get-together, vow to be extra gentle with yourself, said Dr. Bryant. “Do things that you know will soothe and calm you, like playing music beforehand that puts you in a festive mood.”

Make a post-event plan of self-care, too, she advised. “It may be that you promise yourself, ‘I’m going to have a bubble bath after and a hot cup of green tea,’ or maybe you schedule a call with a person that you trust, and as soon as you get in that parking lot you know you can call them to debrief.”

If you are feeling overwhelmed at an event, create a little space to reorient yourself. “Depending on the neighborhood, you can take a quick walk, just to get fresh air,” said Dr. Bryant. If the walls are closing in at a family affair, “volunteer to be the errand person: “Oh, we didn’t get enough butter? I’ll go!”

And it’s a perfectly acceptable conversation-starter to “acknowledge and normalize the awkwardness” during this transitional phase, said Ahmed. “You can say, “My brain is remembering how to socialize, so pardon me if I’m still a bit rusty.”

If you only feel up to attending an event for an hour, tell the host as soon as possible, said Monica Lewis, co-founder (with her husband, Darian) of the Monica Lewis School of Etiquette in Houston. Or you can ask when the best time would be to swing by. “They may say, ‘Oh, make sure you’re here for the cocktail hour,’ or ‘I don’t want you to miss the gift exchange,'” Ms. Lewis said.

If the host has no time preference, added Mr. Lewis, the ideal time to show up for the socially anxious is “right when it starts, because most people won’t get there on time, and you can ease your way into conversations. You’re not walking into a fully packed event.”

If you plan to limit your time during a family gathering, let them know as soon as they start making plans. “Do it early,” he suggested. “It is not the time to have the conversation while you’re standing on the doorstep.”

Nervousness before coming into a social setting is common, said Itai Danovitch, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “But if you find that your anxiety is distressing and disproportionate and interferes with your daily living, and is preventing you from doing things that you would otherwise be doing, then that impact on function is an indicator that there’s a problem.” If this anxiety is persistent and recurs in multiple settings, Dr. Danovitch added, “it’s a good idea to be evaluated by a professional to determine if you have an anxiety disorder.”

In a social setting, said Mr. Lewis, first “do what you have to do to feel safe and comfortable.” After that, he said, “try your best to relax and have fun. We have waited almost two years for this moment! Be as present as you can.”

To loosen up, suggested Dr. Lerman, give yourself an internal pep-talk on why you’re there to begin with. “Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to focus on celebrating my friend,’ or ‘I really love my partner and know this means a lot to them, so I’m going to try to be here for them and let go of things I cannot control.'” Dr. Lerman calls deep breathing his favorite coping tool “because it’s so covert — you can be deep breathing while in conversation. It helps us ground ourselves inside our body and naturally combats any fight, flight or freeze that may arise from a stress response.”

Who knows? Maybe you’ll be having so much fun that you’ll be the last to leave. In which case, Mr. Lewis has a final bit of etiquette advice. “If your host has started taking out their contact lenses,” he said, “it’s time to go.”

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