Dear Susan,

I am a successful businessperson with a problem. Every Christmas season I feel very anxious about going to parties. I can’t avoid them because they are often client related, but I feel terribly nervous and can’t wait to leave. I usually don’t relax until I am home again. What can I do?

MB in London


Dear MB,

Many people suffer from anxiety in social situations like the office Christmas party, large gatherings, or dinner parties. For most people the feelings of anxiety diminish as they settle into the event. But for others, including those who suffer from social phobia, the anxiety, dread and accompanying symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, blushing, sweating, tension, nausea, or lightheadedness, are so debilitating, that they tend to begin avoiding social situations all together.

So, although you may be feeling very uncomfortable, it is actually very positive that you feel compelled to go to the parties. When someone develops a phobia, they learn that they feel anxious when they are near the object or situation they fear, and that they feel relief when they avoid it. (at least for the time being) However, avoiding the fear increases the likelihood that you will try to avoid the situation the next time. By giving into the fear or a phobia, you give it power over your life, and you could find yourself avoiding more and more social situations, until you are only feeling comfortable at home!

While Social phobia is a fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or failure in a public setting, it is no different than any other intense unreasonable fear of a specific object or situation. (elevators, snakes, flying, heights etc).

An effective treatment for phobias is gradual exposure to the feared object or situation, accompanied by supportive encouragement and reassurance. In this way, your brain/mind can learn that something that seemed dangerous at first, really isn’t, and does not pose a threat to you. With gradual exposure, anxiety decreases as the person faces the fear or phobia, usually first from a distance, then gradually closer and more fully. Exposure is usually combined with techniques that help people maintain a relaxed state while they are imagining or encountering the feared object or situation. Consider how you would soothe a child with a fear of the dark. Would you gradually expose them to darkness, first with a night light and open door, then perhaps no nightlight, but leaving the door open, then by gradually closing the door, all the while reassuring them that they are comfortable, safe and secure?

If your social anxiety is causing you great distress or you find yourself avoiding certain situations, psychotherapy would likely be very helpful to you. Exposure, in your case, may initially involve simply imagining going to an office party while doing some deep breathing. However, you might also benefit from examining the underlying thoughts that run through your mind when you have to attend a party. Are they realistic and logical? If not, replace those thoughts with more reasonable and reassuring ones, and consider how overcoming your fear could lead to a much merrier Christmas season.