Overcoming party paralysis: a guide to the holidays from someone with social anxiety

Below is a message from Jana Sczersputowski of the Each Mind Matters Team:

I will confess that I don’t like the holiday season. No, I’m not a Grinch. I generally enjoy the spirit of the season, but as a person with social anxiety, this season looms ahead of me like a perilous obstacle course of family gatherings, office parties and other panic-inducing social experiences. If it weren’t for my three children and my holiday-loving spouse, I might otherwise call in sick to December and just wait for January to arrive.

I’ve had social anxiety for as long as I can remember, though I didn’t always know it by the right name.  When I was young my mom said I was a “wallflower” when I protested going to school dances. In college, my roommates called me “anti-social” when I wouldn’t leave my dorm room except to go to class, afraid that if I went into the more crowded places I’d drown in the sea of students. I was once accused of being a “drama queen” for hyperventilating and crying when a date left me alone at a party.

These labels are overly simplistic and dismissive of the very real mental, emotional and physical reactions I, and many like me, experience in these situations. Symptoms differ from person to person, but for me it includes increased blood pressure to the point where I shake, have trouble hearing and feel like I will pass out. I have difficulty talking and my limbs feel heavy. Occasionally, in highly stressful situations, I compulsively rub my hands together or pull at my fingers. In my mind, I’m convinced that everyone can see exactly what’s happening and are all judging me for it. I believe no one wants me there.  I fear I will melt away or just vanish from existence.

And so, avoidance became the norm. I didn’t want to experience these feelings again and I didn’t want to be embarrassed or ridiculed. This worked out fine until early in my career I was forced to go to my first office holiday party. I say “forced” because it was during the work day and I couldn’t find an excuse to get out of it. At the time, I worked at a firm of mostly spotlight-loving extroverts who assured me that the event would be lots of fun.

It started well enough in that I actually got out of the car and walked in, but it went downhill fast. I recall trembling as I entered the room to realize my worst nightmare – I was the last one there and everyone else was already in conversation. Paralyzed with fear, I stood in a corner gripping my drink like it was my only connection to reality and desperately hoping someone would come over and save me from myself. It didn’t happen. Within minutes I was a sobbing, heaving puddle on the floor of the bathroom, where I would remain for the rest of the afternoon.

Several years, a husband and three kids later, I can no longer avoid my way through the holidays. Part of the joy of the season for them is being with friends and family and with mommy, too. Not wanting to impose my isolationist policies on everyone, I decided I would seek help to learn how to cope and maybe even learn how to enjoy these events.

Let me say upfront that while I worked with professionals to handle my anxiety, the following tips should not be substituted for professional advice. I simply wish to impart my experience so that it may help others jingle all the way to January.

  1. Set a goal. I’ve recently been working with a coach who suggested that I give myself one or two goals for every social event. For example, I might set a goal to speak with a particular person or to introduce myself to one new person. In this way, it kind of becomes a game for me, which is a helpful distraction. Also, once I hit my goal, I have the freedom to leave if I want.
  2. Have an anchor. One of the first signs that I’m about to have an anxiety-induced panic attack is tunnel vision, where I feel like I’m pulling away from the reality of the room. I assign my husband, close friend or trusted colleague to be the anchor that I can hold on to so I don’t slip away. They know that my tightening grip means that panic is setting in and I need help.
  3. Engage in conversation as quickly as possible. I find that if I’m talking to someone, it’s easier for me to ignore the inner voice that’s telling me I’m being judged by everyone around me. My anchor knows to stay close by and help me prevent lulls.
  4. Have thought-provoking questions ready to go. My coach is also helping me come up with openers specifically for business situations since I find those to be the hardest conversations. Here’s an example: “What happened today that surprised you?” This intriguing question gets people talking about themselves, which gets you off the hook.
  5. Be on the planning committee. I’ve learned that having a role at the event helps for two reasons. First, you are part of the decision-making on where it’s held and what activities will happen. This is your chance to design a less stressful environment. Second, you will stay busy during the event and all conversations will have a purpose.
  6. Sometimes the best coping mechanism is recognizing my boundaries and giving myself permission to go home. I’ll try again another day.

It is early December and I’m sure your calendars are also filled with office parties, family gatherings and New Year’s Eve celebrations. Perhaps as you are enjoying these events, you might look around for the lonely soul hiding in the shadow and show your support. Let me give you the opener for that conversation, “Don’t call me a Grinch, but don’t you just hate holiday parties?”

To learn more about California’s Mental Health Movement: Each Mind Matters visit:  www.eachmindmatters.orgEMM Recipe Card_Ribbon Sugar Cookies-min.jpg