How to manage social anxiety during festive season gatherings

As appeared in The Citizen on 18 December 2020:

Clinical psychologist Leandri Beyers advises listening to one’s anxiety and knowing when to respect it, and when to challenge it.

As far as health is concerned, Covid-19 has taken up much of the focus this year and as we face a second wave of infection, it is pretty much all that is dominating the health agenda this holiday season.

However, millions of people all over the world will still have other health issues like anxiety to contend with.

Whether it stems from having to deal with social anxiety while around friends and family or general anxiety stemming from being around people while an infectious disease runs rampant, people still need healthy coping mechanisms to get through this period.

According to clinical psychologist, Leandri Beyers, “anxiety is functional. It indicates to us when there is threat and when we need to be vigilant or plan ahead to have a sense of control”.

“In the context of a pandemic, the same is true. Covid-19 is a reality and getting into situations where your personal space is limited or you might get exposed might elicit significant social anxiety,” she adds.

The fact that staying healthy relies on social responsibility, in that; what someone else does or doesn’t do can have a direct effect on your health creates anxiety for many people, as it implies that the other person’s behaviour is not within your control.

Instead of fighting it and trying not to feel it, Beyers advises listening to it and hearing what it has to say.

ALSO READ: How to manage coronavirus anxiety

“It might be telling you that you don’t feel comfortable greeting people by kissing them, or hanging out at a party with large numbers of people. Then you can act on this by voicing your needs to your loved ones regarding this [ie that you will be keeping your mask on during the gathering or that if there are too many people you want to leave as this will make you feel unsafe].

“Setting boundaries and planning ahead how you want to handle it which will make you feel more in control.”

She adds that it is also important to note that anxiety feeds on avoidance.

“The more you avoid things that makes you anxious, the more you are confirming to your brain that whatever you are facing is a threat. When there is a real threat this is fine and you need to listen to it, but if, for example, you feel anxious about meeting with a friend in nature which is a safe environment and you decide not to go, you strengthen your anxiety response.”

Although you might feel a sense of relief in the moment of avoidance, you are creating social anxiety in general.

“In this example I would rather suggest listening to your anxiety, identifying your need if there is one [ie thinking what might make you feel more comfortable, like maintaining your social distance] and requesting that from your friend prior to meeting.”

She concludes by advising from a psychological perspective, that the healthiest way of approaching this is acknowledging your anxiety as this means you are intact with reality, still connecting with others in ways that are safe and meaningful and making peace with the fact that you only have control over certain things.

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