The holiday season is filled with lovely stuff: Cookies! Pretty lights! Presents to give and receive! An overabundance of peppermint-flavored things! It’s all quite delightful, really. But the fun stuff that swirls about December isn’t a cure-all for the very real anxiety many of us feel this time of year. Sure, it’s marvelous to grab a hot cocoa and sing carols and have an excuse to wear red velvet on multiple occasions, but the holidays are also a time when people are expected to be social, and for those of us who experience social anxiety—or get uncomfortable, panicky, and overwhelmed around groups of people—it can be extra stressful. Especially when it comes to family gatherings.
I love my family, and I am fortunate to be able to say so, I know. But I still get nervous at family holiday parties because there are so many people involved, and always a few strangers in the mix—relatives’ friends, girlfriends, or boyfriends. Typically, these are truly kind people, but they still register as strangers to me, and strangers set my social anxiety on edge. I find it hard to make eye contact with people, and I start worrying that every word that comes out of my mouth (if I can get any out at all) is wrong. I fidget and blush easily and generally want to disappear from the room, because I’m afraid of making a mistake or coming across as rude, when really I’m just shy and anxious. It is hard to be yourself sometimes when you’re surrounded by people who feel like they know you because they’ve watched you grow up. It can be even harder, I think, to answer mostly well-meaning questions about why you’re acting nervous or weird at what’s supposed to be a relaxed, festive gathering of family and friends.
So how does one handle social anxiety around the holidays? Here are a few things that work well for me:
1. Always have two questions in your back pocket.
A dear friend of mine taught me this trick a few years ago: As long as you have two questions to ask people, you’ll always be able to hold a conversation. It seems too simple, right? But it works! (Krista, a social butterfly and solid advice giver, swears by a similar small-talk maneuver.) People love an opportunity to talk about their lives. Let them. Don’t overthink your questions: The simpler, the better. If your relatives traveled to be at the gathering, ask, “How was your trip?” Ask about their New Year’s Eve plans. Ask about their dog, or that vacation you know they took because your mom posted about it on Facebook. Ask about a sports team you know they like, or talk about the weather. Yeah, I know, but—the weather goes a long way! It has a bad reputation as a topic of conversation, but it’s pretty perfect because it affects everyone, and everyone has an opinion. You’d be amazed at how long someone can talk about snow while you just stand there and smile and remember to breathe and make occasional eye contact. This last thing is something I have to actively remind myself to do. It requires practice—saying to yourself, OK, I *just* looked this person in the eye, but I’m going to try do it again now—but, like most things that take practice, it becomes less daunting over time.
Just pick a pair of any of these and…you did it! In a matter of two questions, you actively engaged someone in a conversation. This method is especially helpful because it doesn’t put too much pressure on yourself to say the “right” things or carry the conversation: For the most part, all you have to do is sit back and listen.
2. Dress the part.
I love party dresses, so I feel more confident when I’m all dolled up in bright red lipstick and a fancy outfit (usually something with sequins, or very ’50s New Look, or with red velvet—all a result of watching White Christmas too many times). Also, it almost certainly sparks a conversation about something I’m interested in: clothes and makeup. (This is what works for ME and how I like to look, but if your thing is bowler hats or snazzy ties or glitter-encrusted oxfords, I’d be willing to bet that someone will ask you about them, too.) If I can turn the chit-chat to a subject in my comfort zone, it’s a lot easier for me to engage. I may retreat to another room to escape talking to my aunt about politics, but if she wants to gab about my lip color, I will go deep with her about Sephora, which lipstick she wears, what her signature lip color was when she was my age, and so on and so forth. Therein lies the beauty of drawing attention to myself when I’d otherwise stand around awkwardly, getting the kind of attention I don’t want (“Why isn’t she talking?”)—it’s another way to subtly trick someone into talking openly and warmly about themselves while I can just listen.
If picking the EXACT RIGHT PERFECT THING to wear sounds like it would stress you out even more, don’t worry about it. You’re you either way, and while people are happy to ooh and ahh over your clothes or maquillage, no one is going to make you feel bad about them (and if they do, they’re being a jerk, and you shouldn’t take that person’s opinions to heart anyway).
3. Offer to watch the kids.
A fail-proof way to get out of having to deal with intense conversations with adults is to volunteer to watch any little children that may be at the party. That way, you can spend your time talking about Santa Claus and playing games and watching cartoons and eating candy canes as opposed to having to rehash your college plans for the 800th time in a row. You’ll also come across as responsible and caring (which you are), and it will give you some time to relax and have fun without getting cornered into having Serious Life Discussions. I love to talk to my nieces and nephews about their Christmas lists, their families’ vacation plans, and their favorite kinds of Christmas cookies. I also like to tell them stories about Christmases of Yore, when their Moms and Dads were little, which they LOVE hearing. Especially when I make the stories very silly and let them jump in and add their own twists and turns. And our favorite game to play is the “Three Things” game, in which one person picks out three things, and another person has to build a story around them (one of my nephews will always find a way to work “poop” in there, so it gets very silly, very quickly and often leads to giggle fits for everyone). And starting a game is another easy way to participate in the merry-making without feeling pressure to have deep or small talk.
4. Find a safe person.
If you can, identify at least one person at the party whom you trust. This person can be your go-to whenever things become too much—someone you can be honest with and just straight up tell that you’re kind of nervous and need some help calming down. Maybe they’ll go outside for a walk with you, or play cards with you, or just sit down and watch Elf with you, no big deal. When I was a teenager, I would check in with my younger sister or my cousin, both of whom knew that I often got nervous and would gladly decamp from the party to chill with me for a bit. A true ally will be understanding and kind, no matter what. If you don’t have anyone like that in your family, another option is to invite a friend (with your host’s permission, ideally). That way, you’ll have someone by your side at all times who will have your back and whom you’ll have a good night with.
However! If there is absolutely no one you can turn to, and you’re forced to spend the day with a bunch of people who make you anxious, do a little prep beforehand so you’re ready, at a moment’s notice, to self-soothe. Bring a book, bring some headphones so you can listen to music on your phone, or put your favorite perfume on your wrist and sniff it whenever you want a two-second escape. If you find yourself panicking and you can’t quite get a hold of your surroundings, try to concentrate on the tangible things in the room—the taste of your food, the colors of the decorations, the outstanding Christmas sweater that your favorite uncle is wearing. Mindfulness—allowing yourself to just be present, without focusing on what may happen or what could happen—might also help you stay centered. Remember to breathe, and try to appreciate a bright spot or two in the here and now.
5. Know when to walk away.
It is inevitable that someone will have a “personal take” on a recent current event to deliver at a holiday gathering. For every relative you agree with, there’s bound to be a few who have polar opposite views. In a perfect world, you’d be able to gently confront your fellow partygoers when they’re out of line (and maybe you can, and in that case—yay!). If the idea of getting into a fight with a particularly stubborn party guest makes you sick to your stomach, it can sometimes be more helpful just to excuse yourself from the situation entirely. Leave the room if you can. If that’s not possible, try to find someone with whom you can have a separate conversation (your safe person!), about an entirely different subject. If that’s also not an option, don’t feel bad about checking your phone—maybe to text a friend or scroll through pictures of baby animals on the internet. I find Twitter helpful in these situations—I can post a dumb joke and connect with friends who aren’t physically present. I also like to look at pictures of the aurora borealis on Instagram. Whatever works, really. Sometimes you need to escape your immediate environs—if only mentally—to keep your wits about you.
6. Picture yourself after the party.
When all else fails, imagine how relieved you’ll feel once the party is over. If you keep that image of yourself in mind—for me, it’s being curled on the couch in a warm blanket, drinking cocoa, and watching BoJack Horseman on Netflix—it makes it easier to get through the event, because there is an end in sight. I’ve used this technique during parties, tests, job interviews, and airplane rides. It’s also a reminder that you WILL get through it, and you’ll have become stronger at it for the next party as a result of your efforts.
Every time you face your social anxiety, as opposed to avoiding social situations altogether, you get practical experience and a boost of confidence knowing that no matter what else happens, you were social and made it through. Even if you say nothing all night and just stand there and eat cookies, you’ve successfully gotten dressed, out of the house, and survived an evening in a room filled with people. That’s hard for those of us with social anxiety! Do not downplay the simple victory of being present. Your fears want to keep you isolated, and it is a heroic thing to pick your head up and be a part of the (festive) moment. ♦