It’s that time of year again. The weather is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, and soon holiday happenings and gatherings will once again commence. The holiday season can be a lot of fun for many people, but for those living with social anxiety, the added social pressures and obligations can feel overwhelming.
According to the DSM-5, social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia) is an anxiety disorder in which a person experiences excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations. Anxiety (intense nervousness) and self-consciousness arise from a fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum (and we are all on there somewhere), mindfulness—the gentle, intentional effort to be continuously present with experience—can help alleviate symptoms of social anxiety and improve quality of life. Here are some mindfulness strategies to implement this holiday season:
Accept that you will be nervous. Because you will be. And that’s okay. Often, when people experience an uncomfortable emotion, such as fear, anxiety, or shame, their initial response is to reject that feeling. They label the feeling as “bad” and do everything in their power to inhibit, suppress, ignore, or conquer the feeling. Understand that feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong. They just are. Instead of avoiding or trying to move away from your emotions, you can learn to gently ‘turn towards’ what you are experiencing and allow the feelings to come and go naturally, without struggling with them. It is only by turning towards your pain and uncomfortable emotions that you will find relief from them—not by turning away.
Stay present. People with social anxiety have a tendency to work themselves up prior to social gatherings and events, remembering the last time they were there, and replaying awkward or embarrassing moments over and over in their heads. Programmed to expect the worst, social anxiety sufferers often experience “anticipatory” anxiety—the fear of an upcoming social or performance situation before it even happens—and will worry for days, weeks, or even months before an upcoming social situation. When your mind ruminates about the past or worries over the future, it has left the present moment. Remind yourself that this is a new day and a new event. Use “I am…” statements to help you remain grounded in the here and now. Tell yourself, “I am brushing my teeth”, “I am parking my car”, or “I am walking into the restaurant”.
Notice your surroundings. Socially anxious people tend to draw their focus inward (on self). Studies have found that people who rate themselves as shy in social situations have poor recall for external details in their environment because they generally look inward, not outward. So, it makes sense to focus outward more to lower anxiety. To reduce the concentration on yourself, engage with your surroundings. Observe the people around you and your environment. Study the pictures on the walls, notice the shapes and textures of the objects in the room, listen to what music is being played, smell the food cooking, observe what people are wearing, what color their eyes are. Engage all of your senses.
Mindfulness of breath. Anxiety can cause hyperventilation, a form of rapid or shallow breathing, which precipitates other bodily reactions (heart palpitations, cold or sweaty palms, etc.) that anxious people may misinterpret as signs of immediate danger. By retraining yourself to breathe differently during anxiety-inducing situations, you’ll send a message to your brain that what you’re experiencing is not life-threatening, and you will feel more in control. Square breathing, sometimes referred to as the box breathing technique, is a simple, easy, and effective way to relieve anxiety or panic and enjoy a few moments of relaxation. Square breathing is practiced as follows:
- Breathe in for 4 counts
- Hold breath for 4 counts
- Fully exhale for 4 counts
- Repeat 4 times
For those who suffer from social anxiety disorder, the holiday season can prove especially challenging. Putting strategies in place and living more mindfully are the first steps to effectively managing anxiety and enjoying the celebrations. Above all else, remember to be kind to yourself along the way.
Wishing you a mindful holiday season!