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How do I survive my holiday work party? Add to ...

The question

I'm extremely shy and worried about the upcoming holiday season and all the socializing that comes with it. Usually I skip most events but this year I can't get out of the work holiday party. How do I cope?

The answer

Such social events can be a tremendous source of stress if you tend to be shy or introverted. So know that you are not alone in feeling this way.

Although the natural urge is to skip events that create anxiety, avoidance of these situations counter-intuitively makes anxiety worse in the long-term (even though it can work to reduce the anxiety in the short-term). Avoiding things that feel uncomfortable tricks our mind into thinking that there is something harmful or dangerous about the situation, which is usually not the case.

Rest assured that there are a number of things you can do to help make the evening go more smoothly.

First, ask yourself what specifically are you nervous about? For most people a significant source of stress relates to making "small talk" with people, particularly those they don't know well. People like to talk about themselves, so a good strategy is to go to the party prepared with questions you can ask others (this can help take the spotlight off of you). You could have questions prepared such as "I don't know much about what you do in the company; tell me a bit about your position." Ask what others have planned for the holidays. If they have kids, ask about their children.

Worrying about "looking" anxious can be another source of anxiety. It can feel difficult to look calm when you are at an event you wish you could leave. Be mindful of making eye contact with others. Smile. Ensure good posture with your shoulders back and head up. Positioning your body and doing things that make you look more confident can help you feel more confident.

Hold a glass in your hand (with water or a non-alcoholic beverage) and take a sip if there is a break in the conversation. This can help a pause feel more natural, and can also give your hands something to do. Although it can be tempting to rely on alcohol as it seems to help with tension and anxiety, ensure your alcohol intake is moderate.

If guests are allowed, take a partner or close friend with you, or, if you can, make plans to attend with a colleague that you know well. A person you are comfortable with can help serve as a buffer and lessen your anxiety.

For more tips, consider The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook, by Martin M. Anthony and Richard P. Swinson. It provides step-by-step techniques to manage anxiety in social situations using proven cognitive-behavioural principles.

Finally, feel free to arrive late and leave the party early - there's no rule that says you have to stay the entire time,

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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