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Managing Anxiety? Here's How To Get Through The Silly Season

There is a way through.

13/12/2016 7:21 AM AEDT | Updated 13/12/2016 9:00 AM AEDT
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Oh, dear God.

There's a lot to love about the silly season.

Aside from cruising around the streets catching Christmas lights, eating large slabs of Christmas ham and cranking out the Zooper Doopers, our social calendar is pretty much sorted at this time of year.

But for those who are shy, introverted or managing social anxiety, the thought of getting through countless Christmas parties and New Year's Eve gatherings may be fraught with challenges that are often easier to avoid.

You are letting your anxiety win.

"We have clear empirical evidence and it is very well recognised that this time of year is particularly difficult for people with psychological issues," clinical psychologist Kim Felmingham told The Huffington Post Australia.

"For people with social anxiety, there are more social occasions so that is going to really escalate their symptoms."

And avoidance only reinforces the cycle.

"As much as your anxiety is getting escalated, if you avoid all social interaction -- which is one of the most common coping strategies for this disorder -- that avoidance can strongly reinforce a sense of isolation and loneliness," Felmingham said.

"You are letting your anxiety win."

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is diagnosed as a debilitating fear of criticism or rejection by others (we've discussed the disorder before). While people will vary on the spectrum, it can be a chronic, long-standing condition that requires clinical treatment.

But there are ways to approach and reflect on social events that will try to help you minimise your symptoms.

Thomas Barwick
Drag your best friend along.

BEFORE

In the lead up to a social event, Felmingham recommends having a plan in place.

"Think about what you can and want to go to -- and don't throw yourself straight into the deep end," she said.

"Rather than having a blanket avoidance or saying yes to everything, establish a graded list of social events. Some may be far more anxiety-provoking then others."

This strategy comes down to understanding what's called 'pre-event processing'.

That may be going with a friend, or going and staying for a certain amount of time -- that is better than not going at all.

"When you're approaching an event, you're already anticipating what's going to happen before you get there. You might have images of how bad it is going to be -- they are always negative," Felmingham said.

"If you can, start to work with and challenge those thoughts or images. Ask yourself, 'Am I thinking of the worst case scenario, here?' If you don't do this, your thoughts are winning and that is only going to escalate your anxiety before you enter that situation."

Felmingham recommends planning how to best manage your anxiety.

"That may be going with a friend, or going and staying for a certain amount of time -- that is better than not going at all."

DURING

You've made it to the party and banter is flowing. Your anxiety levels may be escalating. Now what?

"It is important at this stage to do some breathing and work on bringing your anxiety down," Felmingham said. "Remind yourself that not everyone is noticing you or judging you."

This strategy comes back to 'self-focused attention' that is rife among those with SAD.

'Normal' at a Christmas party is probably a quick chat with someone for a few minutes before they move on.

"People tend to have this attention that is focused entirely on themselves and how others are viewing them. What you want to do is try to direct your attention towards conversation or what is happening around you," Felmingham said.

And re-establish your normal.

"No one is the life of the party all of the time. 'Normal' at a Christmas party is probably a quick chat with someone for a few minutes before they move on," she said.

"Rather than interpreting this as 'I don't have anything meaningful to say', try to re-frame that as 'This is a normal form of party interaction'."

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A safety behaviour.

On alcohol

"Alcohol and anxiety go hand in hand. And it can be considered a safety behaviour," Felmingham said.

"It can be undermining because you may drink too much to cope with your anxiety. Or, you may attribute a positive social experience to the alcohol. That only perpetuates the cycle because you are never actually able to challenge your ideas."

According to Felmingham, it comes down to moderating your drinking.

"If a social event went well, see that as a product of your own behaviour -- not the alcohol. To get to the bottom of it, we have to eventually drop all of those safety behaviours."

AFTER

Which brings us here. When it comes to looking back at social events, try to notice patterns -- and start to intervene.

Be compassionate towards yourself and recognise that this is a tough time of year. Don't be ashamed to seek help if you need it.

"Post-event processing is where we tend to focus on the negative parts. Think about whether there were any positive conversations that challenged that. It's about trying to see the shades of grey," Felmingham said.

"Be compassionate towards yourself and recognise that this is a tough time of year. Don't be ashamed to seek help if you need it."

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about social anxiety disorder contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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