A group of friends toasting over a Christmas feast

How to Handle Social Anxiety & Difficulty at Family Events

With the festive season upon us and the repercussions of social distancing leaving our inner worlds with this residual subtle (or not so subtle) angst, it’s more than normal to feel a little bit of unease at the thought of social events.

With limited social contact these past two years, we’ve become comfortable doing things on our own. Social activities drifted into the background like an old book we once loved, but couldn’t be bother reading again. However, now everything is open again and socialising has become a normal part of our lives, so we’re out enjoying socialising after years of deprivation…    isn’t that right??…right??

Nope, for many of us, that’s not right.

Many of us are experiencing a lag between socialising being a normal part of life and it feeling normal.

Family interactions are not any different and after having a bit of space from seeing the extended family for a while, you might be feeling nervous about being around them. Or, perhaps family gatherings have never really been your thing, and they are even a “trigger” zone – a story a lot of us know quite well. And the hardest part is, is that it doesn’t seem to matter how much ‘inner work’ you’ve been committed to, all the ground covered with your therapist seems to fly out the window within seconds of being out with the fam.

Whether someone in your family feels the need to comment on the most minuscule, insignificant things like perhaps the arrangement you’ve chosen for the table or an outfit, or perhaps Aunt Selda has nothing but well-wishes when she feels the need to express her deep despair in your life decisions – whatever it is, these situations can trigger tricky thoughts or difficult feelings like anxiety.

Even the most enlightened-being experiences resistance and painful emotions in the face of hurtful comments from a family member. 

It just seems to be one of those things that comes with the territory of the close interpersonal proximity you share with family. You can almost think about it like a game (hear me out) – so you’ve played this game hundreds of times during your life and you go to start the same game again, pick up the controller, get to the same level, and the same villain appears in the exact same place you found it the last 300 times. You grab your controller, and you go in with the same plan and moves that you ALWAYS use, but… to your shock (and despair), you lose AGAIN – except, swap villain with family member, and instead of ‘losing a game’ – you find yourself triggered, emotions in a knot and central nervous system flaring up. This experience is exhausting and disheartening, especially when you’re trying your best. It’s a scenario a lot of us are well acquainted with. A scenario that can feel helpless, as you know what your family is like and what to expect, and yet find yourself in the same position, time and time again.

To cope with your anxiety and fear of social gatherings, you may do one of a few things:

  • Avoid the social gathering all together
  • Avoid certain people at the event
  • Hide away in a corner while scrolling through your phone
  • Drink too much

However much temporary relief obtained, this is usually not an adaptive or helpful long-term strategy. Psychology 101 reminds us that transient escapism only allows negative emotions to have a greater grip on our mental state.

So, this silly season, go into family gatherings with a social anxiety game plan!

Stepping forward, how can you set yourself up in the best way to cope at family gatherings?

Like playing a game, instead of just going in blind like any other time, it can be useful to go in with a strategy. A good strategy should include three things:

  • Preset boundaries
  • A breathing exercise
  • Pre-planned discussion topics/scripts

Set firm boundaries

Set firm boundaries prior to the event, which should include:

  • Set a reasonable time for how long you will be attending the event,
  • Choose how long you want to engage with a certain somebody,
  • And be clear about what you disclose to them.

Breathing exercise

If you find yourself feeling anxious, practise a breathing exercise. A breathing exercise will calm your mind and give you control over tricky situations. A simple and easy one to use is as follows:

  1. Hold your breath for 3 seconds after taking an up-breath
  2. Allow your muscles to relax on your out-breath
  3. Repeat until calmer

*Note: It’s normal to notice your heart racing when you hold your breath, but keep doing this exercise until you feel calmer in your body. If you feel dizzy or light headed, holding your breath for 2 seconds may be more suitable.

Discussion topics/scripts

To gain control over the direction of conversations, pre-plan some easy-going, neutral discussion topics. If you find yourself in a sticky uncomfortable conversation, use your breathing exercise to regain control of the situation. Then, choose to either excuse yourself or use a sentence you’ve prepared, for example:

“I see your point, but I feel differently, and would love to use our time to catch up on topics we both find exciting.”

Or,

“Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate you being open, but let’s change the topic if you don’t mind, because I am on a different page.”

Or if the person is acting rude, perhaps something like:

“Hmm… that feels a bit harsh, let’s change the topic please”.

If that certain somebody, continues to engage in the conversation, just repeat yourself like a broken record, for example:

“As I said, that feels a bit harsh, let’s change the topic please”.

And repeat, and repeat…and then walk away.

Most importantly, remember to expect imperfection in the way you cope with your family events. If family gatherings are anxiety-provoking, then expect to feel anxious at times during the event. Everyone has situations in life that make them feel vulnerable and it’s perfectly acceptable to not “enjoy” these events. Keep your expectations and goals simple: Show up to the event, talk to some people and don’t throw a plate at Aunt Selda.

For other helpful blogs on the festive season, you may like to read Managing Festive Season Expectations and How to Combat Festive Season Stress.