"You may feel like you are going to die, but the feelings of anxiety themselves can't actually hurt you."
I have severe social anxiety which makes it hard for me to attend gatherings of more than one or two people. This doesn’t affect my social life much, because I hang with friends one-on-one and find that very fulfilling. But when it comes to work, and its dreaded activity–networking, what should I do? I’ve been politely skipping any happy hours, get togethers, or staff parties. I’m relieved to not go, but then I feel extremely left out when I see my coworkers have bonded or are laughing over what happened the night before. Am I doing the right thing by honoring my anxiety? Or should I push myself to attend? For the record, I am a sweaty, heart-pounding, stammering blob at group functions. The anticipation of attending a work function would mostly likely ruin my whole week. Is it really worth it?
Many people who don't "get it" will say that anxiety is all in your head. But even if your anxiety is irrational or not entirely rooted in fact, it's real for you and it causes you real pain.
I could sit here and say that you probably aren't that bad at gatherings, but I don't know that for sure. Your description could be totally accurate, and you may stick out like a sore thumb. Humans have a hard time being objective and evaluating our own behavior. This is even worse when anxiety is in the mix. Anxiety causes us to overestimate the likelihood of bad things happening and how severe these things would be if they were to occur. Anxiety also causes us to underestimate our ability to cope in difficult situations. That leaves you imagining these worst-case scenarios and working yourself into near-panic when you haven't even left the house yet.
Avoiding these larger get-togethers for work is only a problem if it's making you unhappy or interfering with your performance at work. If you are satisfied and this is just a totally acceptable personality quirk, then maybe you don't need to change. It comes down to what your personal values are. If this is something that you would ideally like to change, that is certainly possible. Seeing a therapist is obviously a great way to put a dent in this issue, but there are also some therapeutic techniques that you can use on your own or with the help of self-help content. Basically, there are two main approaches to addressing this sort of anxiety.
Do you remember those creepy old commercials (or Family Guy episodes) where the Kool-Aid man bursts through a wall and yells "oh yeah!"? One approach to reducing anxiety asks you to adopt the Kool-Aid man approach and throw yourself right through the wall and into your anxiety-provoking situation. In the field of psychology, we call this flooding. It's super effective because it forces your body to adapt to the situation. You may feel like you are going to die, but the feelings of anxiety themselves can't actually hurt you. Our bodies are great at eventually finding a nice cozy baseline and panic can only last so long. It's like diving into a cold pool. It's brutal at first, but after a while your body begins to adjust.
If you're cringing at this, it’s because while very effective in reducing anxiety, the mere thought of flooding is scary. There's also a gentler approach in which smaller steps are taken toward the larger goal of directly facing your fears. This is called systematic desensitization. Instead of throwing yourself directly into the situation that gives you anxiety, you work your way there step by step. Start with a smaller version of your overall goal that still gives you anxiety, but at a much lower level. Maybe it’s as simple as adding one or two more friends to your normal small-scale hangouts. If this is enough to make you feel a bit uncomfortable, but not enough to make you flip out, that's perfect. The next step is to fully engage at this level and learn how to tolerate the anxiety and discomfort. Eventually this size gathering will become no big deal and you will be ready to step it up another notch. In this way you just keep working your way up until you are ready for the real thing.
There are a few other strategies that could be helpful to defuse the amount of anxiety you feel if you end up giving this a shot. Currently, people are much more open to talking about anxiety and mental health in general. A simple statement of "Hey, guys! Good to see you. Just so you know, I'm super anxious in public situations like this, so bear with me if I do something stupid," can go a long way toward addressing the elephant in the room and normalizing things. You could also get creative with this and invite your coworkers over to your home or a place that you are familiar with. That may serve as a good bridge between staying home and going out to a bar where you feel out of your element.
Finally, it's important to remember that even if you "fail,” you are still okay. This isn't a one-shot deal. We have a bad tendency to engage in "black or white" thinking where we quickly categorize things as either a success or failure. Say you go to a happy hour and then bail out in like 20 minutes because you can't handle the amount of anxiety you are feeling. That doesn't mean that you failed. That means that you got 20 minutes of practice being anxious in a public setting, which is badass. That 20 minutes might turn into 30 minutes or an hour next time. If you do want to make these changes, realize that there is no strict timeline. Progress is progress.
Need More Advice? I have anxiety, but my partner doesn't. Are we screwed?
Dr. Robert Duff is a clinical psychologist who focuses on mental health for real people. He is also the author of the bestselling series Hardcore Self Help.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox weekly.