Gatherings involving family, friends and coworkers are a joy for many, but can be overpowering for people with social anxiety.

For some, it feels better to be alone, to avoid seeing loved ones, or to bite your nails non-stop.

Ways to overcome social anxiety

For those who suffer from major social anxiety, avoiding social situations or relying on defense mechanisms can keep the discomfort hanging around.

People who experience social anxiety tend to engage in “safety behaviors.” These are actions or habits which serve little purpose other than calming down anxiety in the moment – and which can actually increase your social anxiety in the long run.

For instance, if you’re at that holiday gathering and feel anxious, your flight response might tell you to hover in the least crowded part of the room. It might feel imperative to keep a snack in hand at all times, or to scroll through your phone.

You’re probably already somewhat aware of what your safety behaviors are, and know that these tendencies help you handle tense situations.

Unfortunately, safety behaviors usually involve some cost (like appearing aloof, or causing you to overeat), which creates good motivation to treat your social anxiety at its root!

Just do it: stopping perfectionism

For most people, perfectionism isn’t about being perfect; it’s about never being good enough.

To take the pressure off any conversation, look at it more like a puzzle and less like a performance.

To someone with social anxiety, a holiday party becomes more than just a party. It becomes an all-or-nothing opportunity to be judged. So unless we give some kind of outstanding performance, we feel we will be seen as a failure.

A good start to overcome this perfectionism would be to lower the bar a bit. In other words, it’s okay to have an awkward silence during a meal at the dinner table. It’s okay not to respond with delight at everything someone else says.

Before going into a social situation, remind yourself: if you make a mistake, sirens aren’t going to go off, and you are probably the only one who would call it a ‘mistake,’ anyway.

Being human means having endearing quirks, and we’re never able to accurately judge our own quirks – why stress yourself out trying?

Starting conversations without pressure

Sometimes the worst part about talking to friends is that you don’t know how to get to the meaningful, personal part of the conversation. A trick is to embrace small talk as a funnel into better conversation.

Pick a talking piece such as a new jacket your friend bought, or the favorite scarf you’re wearing. Your small talk can start around the clothing so you can transition naturally – into conversations about favorite clothing stores, then grocery stores, then cooking habits, favorite foods, childhood memories.

Remember that any point of conversation is a funnel to something else. To take the pressure off any conversation, look at it more like a puzzle and less like a performance.

Helping the host

Offering to help the host at a party or group hangout is another way to manage anxiety.

Become a helping hand with a purpose, and you’ll see some of the pressure go away. You’ll have an excuse not to make small talk while you’re occupied, and after, you’ll feel a self-esteem boost – you made someone else’s life easier!

It’s OK to say no

If your friends and family want you to be there for every event they’re going to, that’s an honor. But it’s ok to say no.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid everyone, which will only exacerbate the anxiety, but you don’t need to go to every holiday party or family event, either.  

It’s better to pick the events that mean the most to you and politely decline the rest. This way, you give yourself necessary time to regroup and rest with your thoughts. It’s ok to decline get-togethers that will really cause you more stress than joy.

Battle through and seek support!

When battling social anxiety, it’s important to focus on external events instead of being in your head all the time.

If you’ll need to use coping mechanisms to get through an event, be smart about which you choose (think helpful over self-destructive).

And if it’s really hard to cope with your anxiety, be honest around those who care about you. Communication is everything, and keeping stress bottled up can make things worse in the long run.

So find someone you can confide in and let them know that you are in need of support. It will help.

Written by: Alyssa Foster and Christina Beck