It started with a racing mind. Followed by a pounding heart, difficulty breathing and a tense body. Anna Gala was in her early 20s when it happened for the first time, catching her off guard and unaware.
"I ignored these symptoms for years, until one night, I had an anxiety attack. I literally hit the floor, crying. I could barely breathe, and needed my sister to rub my back and read a book to me until I could stop crying and breathe again," Gala told HuffPost Canada.
Gala was diagnosed with severe anxiety soon after and has been on a journey since to help others cope with the condition, which can feel amplified at this time of the year as social calendars fill up.
Social anxiety is an intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. People with social anxiety disorder may worry about acting or appearing visibly anxious (e.g., blushing, stumbling over words), or being viewed as stupid, awkward, or boring.
"There are so many unknown variables that the mind chatter starts to create narratives from a fear-based place for people with anxiety," says Gala. "'What could go wrong?' 'What if people don't like me?' 'What if I embarrass myself?' 'I don't fit in.' 'People don't understand me,' etc."
Therapist Megan Rafuse, co-founder of Toronto therapy clinic Shift Collab, said that anxiety is your body's natural response to stress; it acts as a built-in safety mechanism that prevents you from harm. When that mechanism is working well, it correctly assesses danger, similar to a smoke alarm going off during actual fires.
"For some people, their internal safety mechanism, or metaphorical smoke alarm, is faulty, and they're not able to correctly assess the situation or properly determine the level of threat, resulting in a lot of stress," said Rafuse.
Social anxiety can increase around the holidays because there's added pressure to spend time with family, friends or colleagues.
"These gatherings may include people we look up to or those we haven't seen in quite some time," said the therapist. "The holidays can be a time of reflection, and sometimes transition, so holiday parties can be exceptionally difficult when we fear being judged when people ask us major questions about our lives such as, 'Where are you working now?' or 'What's next for you?' which can leave us wanting to flee. "
Ruse added that for many living with social anxiety who may be struggling or are feeling isolated, the holidays can feel extremely lonely — especially in our social media age.
However, there is help and hope for those with social anxiety. Read on to learn coping mechanisms to manage your social anxiety over the holidays.
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Stop, drop (the thoughts) and roll with your breath
Many people with social anxiety disorder can experience strong physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating, and may experience full-blown attacks when confronting a situation.
One of the first steps to managing social anxiety is to pause and breathe deeply, which helps the physical symptoms dissipate and allows you to think critically again. Focusing on your breathe also interrupts your mind from racing, helping to bring you back to the present.
"Breathing deeply and meditation are absolute lifesavers," said Gala, who is now a self-empowerment and mindset coach. "Even just being more aware and conscious about breathing throughout the day will help tremendously."
Gala said when you feel the first signs of social anxiety creeping on, consider this stepped process:
First, take full, deep and complete breaths. If possible, counting to four during your inhale, and four counts to exhale. Then ask yourself the following, working through the prompts out-loud, in a journal, or with a friend or coach:
- What is the source of my anxiety?
- What are my thoughts and how are they making me feel?
Breathe deeply again for 10 seconds and then ask yourself:
- What do I know to be true about myself and the situation that contradicts my anxious thoughts?
- What thoughts and feelings make me feel good, grounded and calm?
Then breathe in these positive thoughts for 20 seconds.
And remember, you are not your thoughts.
"Thoughts emerge from consciousness and slip away as easily as they appear," said Gala. "To associate with your thoughts is misleading since some thoughts are not useful."
Just the facts, ma'am
Notice what predictions you're making about certain situations, and focus on the facts, advised Rafuse. For example, if you're thinking, "no one is going to talk to me at the party," try to recall past experiences that dispute this and then make it a point after the event to assess whether your "prediction" came true. When your thoughts are telling you that everyone is looking at you or judging you, that's not usually the case. No one else is paying as much attention to you as you may think — people are also worried about themselves, added Rafuse.
"The more we challenge our predictions, the less often they show up," said the therapist, who has lived with social anxiety for most of her life. "When I'm feeling anxious and am having negative thoughts, I often ask myself, 'What would I tell someone I love if they were feeling this way?"
Watch: "Social anxiety can affect many during the holidays." Story continues below.
Treat yourself like you would treat others
Be kind to yourself and don't overdo things, pick and choose your commitments and what you want to accomplish over the holidays. Remember the pressure you're feeling to attend all of the things may not be based in fact, so check-in with loved ones who can support you with a different perspective.
"I'm a firm believer in sharing what you're feeling with others, which helps us reality check evidence to support whether our thoughts are unhelpful or inaccurate," said Rafuse. "Usually, the people who care about us will help us fact-check our perception of ourselves and the situations we fear. Sharing with others can be the first step to working through this."
Rafuse also recommended Avail.app, which uses a simple tool that prompts you to rate how you are feeling during different situations or times.
"It guides me on what I am doing well and where I need to steer my self-care," she said.
For those who live with social anxiety, the physical symptoms, thoughts, emotions and changes in behaviour can be debilitating and isolating. Allow yourself to experience your anxious moments with the knowledge that you can get through it, recommended Rafuse, especially by trying to remain in the present.
"Rather than rid ourselves of those moments, I suggest to my clients that we reframe these experiences as a safe situation," said Rafuse. "When we work to recalibrate our 'built-in safety mechanism,' and avoid acting on false alarms, we build new neural pathways, eventually reducing the number of false alarms we experience. Most people feel anxious at some points so be kind and patient with yourself."
Know that you're not alone and you can choose how and with whom you wish to celebrate the season.