It's the Fourth of July, and people will celebrate. It's summer, which means Juneteenth, barbecues, weddings and family reunions. Sound like fun? Sounds like torture to some. Having to put on a smiling face during summer celebrations can be extremely difficult and stressful for those who struggle with the country's most common type of anxiety, Social Anxiety Disorder.
As we discussed in my article on anxiety, 15 million Americans struggle with Social Anxiety Disorder. Symptoms usually begin in late childhood to adolescence, with 75% of people affected beginning to show symptoms between the ages of 8 and 15. To be diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder, one must meet ten diagnostic criteria. Generally, here's what to expect:
Fear or anxiety about situations in which one is open to observation or scrutiny
Worry that one will look nervous in public and be rejected
Social interactions are painful
Social interactions are avoided as often as possible
The anxiety around socializing is out of proportion to the actual event
None of the symptoms are related to other medical problems, substances or medications
If you've had symptoms like this for 6 months or more, you may have Social Anxiety Disorder. The best types of treatment for this flavor of anxiety generally include Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) or Exposure Therapy. In the latter, you work with a therapist to change your thoughts about yourself and interactions with others. Exposure Therapy focuses on slow introduction to anxiety-provoking scenarios, with the goal of making them all much less stressful over time. But, what if you need to go to a party TODAY?
Although I strongly urge those facing Social Anxiety to seek the help of a counselor or psychiatrist, if you've got to get out today for a Fourth of July event, here are 5 tips that should help in getting through the day.
1. Choose wisely
Ok, you will probably have at least two options for how to spend the day. Play to your strengths and choose the activity that you think will be the least anxiety-provoking for you. If you loathe large crowds, go to an event where there will be fewer people. But if the idea of one-on-one conversations with strangers and associates worries you, choose an event where you can blend in better. If both options are scary, choose the one it will be easiest to leave when you're ready. And honestly, if you know you'll run into an ex, a "frenemy" or a family member that completely stresses you out, you don't HAVE to go to the event. You really don't! But my therapy clients will tell you, I'd still encourage you to find something fun to do.
2. Have an anchor
If you decide to try to brave an event, see if you can go with a friend or family member that helps you cultivate your calm. Don't try to buddy up with a friend that's "cool" when alone, but becomes obnoxious or more social than you can handle in public. Instead, see if you can find a person that is calming and matches your general level of energy to hang out with at the event. If that's not possible, it's ok. Before you go, think of your favorite and most calming person, place or thing. Think of it in detail. Engage all senses in your recollection. My favorite place in the world is the beach. If I focus, I can immerse myself in the sight, sound, smells, and overall good feeling of the coast. Practice before you leave for your event. If you feel yourself getting anxious while socializing, excuse yourself to the restroom and do your visualization.
3. Say "yes" AND "no"
Always remember you are under no obligation to do things that make you uncomfortable. However, being limited by fear has its consequences. I strongly encourage people to gradually face their fears, and that process is greatly helped along by an adept counselor. In the meantime, though, you can choose when to say yes, and no, to opportunities for socialization. You can use your "no" and "yes" at the same time, believe it or not. It works a little like this: suppose today you're invited to a cookout, with fireworks to follow. It's perfectly fine if you say "yes" to one part of the event and "no" to the other part. Do bursting flares in the dark make you feel panicky - especially surrounded by a bunch of folk? Leave the party way before dark so you don't have to participate. At least you will have challenged yourself a little today by socializing at all. Good job!
4. Give yourself an out
This part complements number 3. Always give yourself an out. If you want to try to be social today, but can't stand the idea of 9 hours of partying to wait for fireworks, let your host know you can make it, but have to leave by an arbitrary time to take care of an arbitrary obligation. You can make it all up before you get to the party. No one will know. And you don't have to share what you've got to do after the party. That's your business! Need a friend to call you, and make your exit look necessary? Enlist someone to be your rescue, schedule for them to call at a certain time, take the call, say your goodbyes and take a huge sigh of relief in the car. You did it, you got through a party - no matter how long you stayed.
5. Make up a mantra
It's not weird to have a little saying you mentally repeat in those awkward social moments, before you get to an event, or even while eating. Before going to socialize today, come up with a mantra that challenges your idea that everyone is watching and judging you. No one really is watching or judging you, and if you've got a social circle that is, it's time for new friends. So what can you say to yourself? Try something simple like: "I'm here, I'm ok, and I deserve to have fun!" Pick something that's easy to remember - and believable. When you feel you've just said something silly, use your mantra instead of criticizing yourself.
After you get through today, in whatever way you do so, make sure to seek out help. I am very well aware that Social Anxiety Disorder can be a major burden - and today's blog post is not meant to be a complete solution. We struggle terribly with anxiety in America - which I guess is good and bad news. It's a shame we do, but since we're the most anxious country on the planet, we've got a lot of resources!!!
It may help to start here:
Psychology Today - to help you find the right therapist to conquer your social fears
The Shyness and Anxiety Workbook for Teens - learn skills on building social confidence
The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook - a broad view of anxiety disorders, and exercises that can help.
Social Anxiety Support Website - find help from others growing through the experience
*This article is not intended to serve as medical advice and should not take the place of an evaluation by a mental health professional. If you or a loved one is having a mental health crisis, please call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, or reach out to 1-800-273-TALK .