Anxiety is real. In her mental health memoir First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, Sarah Wilson wrote that where “depression is stigmatized … anxiety is sanctified as propping up modern life, which ironically sees depression treated as a legitimate illness, and the anxious left in a cesspool of self-doubt and self-flagellation for not being better at coping with life”. For some real help, visit the NHS’s website for therapy and counselling resources.
Dr Philippe Goldin is a director at the University of California, Davis, and was the lead researcher of many Stanford University studies about social anxiety disorder. He says that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) “trains individuals with Sad [social anxiety disorder] to willingly expose themselves to what they fear in order to learn a new way of being”. CBT reframes “the relationship to cues that trigger fear, worry and anxiety”, using “graded exposure to fear-inducing situations”. Something such as a massive holiday party would be a goal, not a start.
The bestselling self-help author Gretchen Rubin suggests finding a hero whose social style you relate to and can copy in anxious moments. You could try George Clooney’s dirty-tuxedo charisma, Jimmy Carr’s edgy wit or the Duchess of Sussex’s graceful ease. Watch their gestures. Usually, confident people are steady, make good eye contact and take up physical space. If your style is more like Adele’s – remember her onstage “Hi hi hi hi” at the 2017 Grammys? – embrace it.
Know who you are
Charles Linden, the developer of the Linden method for anxiety disorder recovery, believes that social anxiety comes in two forms: it is either “created genetically as a character trait unassociated with any disorder, in which people feel less socially comfortable, shy, vulnerable or timid”; or it is “directly linked to fear disorder”, which develops when fear “creates a constant cycle of inappropriate psychological responses”. The first can be addressed with preparation, such as “a recce of the venue or spending time there with a person you trust”; the only way to deal with the second kind, he says, is to address the underlying disorder.
Practise, practise, practise
Before an event, Linden suggests preparing yourself with prompts such as websites or photos, to act as “a catalyst for a conversation”. Having a few innocuous anecdotes and questions that apply to everyone is also a good idea. If you find yourself stuck mid-conversation at a holiday party, ask what they have planned for 2019 – people love to talk about themselves. If you fear any of this will trip you up, practise in lower-stakes environments.
A socially anxious person may think alcohol is just what they need to get through a social situation. But alcohol lowers your inhibitions, leading you to do or say things you may not otherwise (and lead to “hangxiety” the next day). Soda water with lime or cranberry juice can be just as much a party prop as a gin and tonic.
You have the power
Everything anxiety tells you is stupid and a lie, basically, says Dr Goldin. “Thoughts and beliefs are epiphenomena of activity in neural circuits; they are not any more real than sound, sensations and memories. Anxiety is normal, not abnormal. We give our thoughts the power to interrupt our wellbeing. We can revoke this habit at any moment.”