How to beat office party social anxiety, a psychologist explains
Party season is fast approaching, and some of us are more able to cope with it than others.
If the idea of the office Christmas party feels you with dread or you're in a stressed state about all the extra get togethers coming up in festive season, the first thing to get clear is that you're not alone. Of course there's a spectrum of severity, but feeling nervous about socialising is incredibly common.
It's a part of our evolved nature that we're concerned about things like reputation and status; we dread making a fool of ourselves or being left out. Through our ancestral history, humans needed to work in groups to stay alive, so that's why we've developed instincts to care a lot about this social stuff.
It's also worth reminding yourself that social occasions are an opportunity, not just a threat – they are chance to forge shared memories, bond and have fun together. So, as an initial step, try boosting your hopefulness about these events – for example, remind yourself of occasions – however rare they might be – that things went well and you actually did have a fun time or you made new friends.
Next, from a practical perspective, one of the most effective ways to reduce your social anxiety is to be a little strategic and proactive. So rather than waiting for the obligations to roll in and letting them hang over you like a dark cloud, be clear about which ones you really want or need to go to.
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If there are friends you'd love to go with, don't wait for them to ask you – reach out and make it happen (they'll probably be thrilled to hear from you). If you struggle with small talk, don't be afraid to do a little prep – get up to speed on the latest current affairs or sports news, so that you've got some material at hand to lighten those initial interactions.
If you're quiet by nature and don't socialise much during the rest of the year, it can be helpful to use so-called "if-then plans" so that you don't freeze or feel overwhelmed when you first walk into the room or take a seat at the dining party table.
You could rehearse a few to draw on when you need them, such as "If I am feeling stuck for conversation, then I will ask the person next to me what they of Musk taking over Twitter", or "If I am feeling left out, then I will look for the friendliest-looking person or people in the room and ask them one question (such as whether they've finished their Christmas shopping)".
There are some psychology findings that you might find comforting. One of my favourites is a study by psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis. that asked volunteers with social anxiety to rate the quality of their relationship with a given friend.
Then the researchers approached that named friend and asked them to rate the relationship too. The reassuring finding was that the named friends rated the friendships more positively than did the volunteers with social anxiety – in other words, your friends probably like you more than you realise.
Here's another comforting study that led psychologists to propose something called the "spotlight effect" – the way that we tend to think people are scrutinising us much more closely than they really are. It involved volunteers wearing an embarrassing t-shirt (at the time – around the year 2000 – this was considered to be a Barry Manilow t-shirt) in a group setting and then estimating how many people in the room noticed the t-shirt.
In short, the volunteers massively overestimated just how many people noticed their embarrassing attire – in reality the others just weren't paying that much attention to them. Bear this in mind when you're agonising over what to wear or what to say – you know, a lot of people are wrapped up in themselves and they're not judging you as closely as you might think.
Indeed, excessive self-focus is one of the main drivers of social anxiety. Constantly monitoring your own behaviour and utterances will fuel your nerves and – in worst-case scenarios – lead you to act more awkwardly. Anything you can do to try to get out of your head and focus your attention outwards ought to alleviate your anxiety.
You could even give yourself another if-then plan to help with this, such as "If I find myself being self-focused, then I will make a conscious effort to listen to what someone is saying or look at what they are wearing".
Taking this further, why not set yourself a little goal to be on the lookout for anyone else at the party or dinner who seems uncomfortable or left out – there are bound to be people feeling that way – and you could be the one to make their experience more positive.
Above all, remember that avoidance (either not going out, or resorting to excess drink or drugs) never helps anxiety – it just fuels it. Like all challenges in life that we find difficult, they get easier with practice. But don't expect too much of yourself either – pace yourself, and do your best. Plan ahead, get out of your head, and who knows, you might even have a little fun along the way.
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.