How To Handle Social Anxiety At Family Gatherings, According To Experts

A table served full of food at a family gathering

With the holidays fast approaching, you might be anticipating a multitude of family get-togethers, parties, and dinners. And while many people associate the holiday season with warm memories of spending time with family, if you experience social anxiety at family events, your upcoming holiday social commitments might feel more stressful than exciting for you.

According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety disorder, otherwise known as social phobia, is the third-largest mental health issue in the United States. And while you might think that those with social anxiety are generally averse to parties or mingling with people that they don’t know well, social anxiety can also happen with family members. After all, most of us have at least someone in our family we just don’t gel all that well with, but social anxiety makes those complicated family dynamics all the more, well, complex.

DeAnna Jordan, Clinical Director at New Method Wellness tells Bustle via email that social anxiety is more common among introverted people, and happens with exposure to large groups of people. While it might be triggered by fears from the past, or distorted thoughts about what others might think, “Social anxiety is more about the fear of being around groups of people,” Jordan tells Bustle. She further explains that social anxiety can’t be “turned off” so easily. “Feelings of being negatively judged, criticized, or viewed by others are persistent and intrusive [and pervade] every area of life — academically, professionally, and socially.”

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Per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), social anxiety disorder goes beyond feelings of shyness. It’s marked by extreme fears of being judged by others, self-consciousness, and avoidance of other people. NIMH also notes that these fears of being watched and judged by others can affect a person’s life in profound ways — daily activities, work, school, and social relationships can all get disrupted by social anxiety disorder.

Refinery29 notes that when social anxiety disorder involves family members, staying calm during the holidays can feel like an overwhelming feat — and you might decide you want to opt out entirely, which is a totally valid option. Moreover, while families are supposed to love and support each other no matter what, even loving families have their problems. And some families are more complex than others.

Jennifer Shannon, LMFT, co-founder of the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, told Refinery29 that “Social anxiety disorder is really that fear of doing something that would be so bad that you would get kicked out of the tribe in some way.” Certain family members — maybe those you don’t feel comfortable with, or maybe those you feel judged by — might trigger anxiety in you. So, if you find that you actually feel more comfortable with your friends than your family, or some of your family, there's a totally logical explanation for that. But if you *do* choose to spend time around family this year, how do you get through it?

Jordan tells Bustle that if certain family members trigger your social anxiety, you’ve got safe, healthy options for coping available to you. “If they are asking private or difficult questions, change the subject … I often advise my patients to make a list of light subjects that they can talk about with their difficult family members to keep the situation neutral.” Jordan further suggests that you should feel free to take the focus off yourself if you don’t want to talk about a particular subject. Changing the subject to their hobbies, favorite TV show, or their children can help, Jordan says.

While navigating the holidays can be stressful for a slew of reasons, it can help to plan beforehand if your family triggers your social anxiety. Setting up a plan — and boundaries — before you arrive at a family gathering can help you keep the focus on topics you feel okay talking about, while pivoting away from those you’d rather not discuss. And, as Refinery29 notes, it may help to remember that mental health conditions often run in families — so there’s a good chance you’re not the only one feeling anxious or overwhelmed. So, if you decide to spend time with family for the holidays this year, pick out a few safe topics for discussion, and remember that you'll be back in your comfort zone soon.