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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Social Anxiety, Counselling and Christmas

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December can be a sociable time whether with events such as family parties, functions at work or just a steady stream of invitations to ‘come down the pub’.  The highlight of this social calendar is often on New Year’s Eve when there is that strong imperative to ‘do something’.

For many people this is a really fun time of year.  For others however it can be a difficult time and one which is regarded with a sense of very real trepidation.

Some of those who regard this time of year with much apprehension have a clinical condition which is known as Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). This is also recognised as Social Phobia. The condition is seen as a challenging emotional reaction to social situations and is probably far more widespread than many people realise.  It can also be baffling to those who amongst us who are social animals and readily embrace the crowded room and bustling restaurant. 

For every enthusiastic party animal there are those who view the onset of this social season with dismay.  Time and emotional energy will be spent in finding or even manufacturing acceptable reasons to avoid the impending gathering.  Like the Sword of Damocles a forthcoming event can loom large in the mind of the SAD sufferer and overshadow a time of the year that would otherwise be spent in celebration.

This fear and trepidation is very real.  Those who struggle with Social Anxiety Disorder can view some work or family gatherings with the same trepidation that others may view a visit to the dentist or a forthcoming operation.  It is debilitating and distressing. It can also be disruptive to relationships especially if partners simply do not understand the condition.

The origins of Social Anxiety Disorder are likely to be different for each individual.  For some there may be the distant memory of an embarrassing event which occurred long ago in childhood but which remains seared into the memory.  For others, the originating cause may lie far beyond the conscious memory leaving just an underlying feeling of social inadequacy.

There can also be issues of general social conditioning rather than specific events. Those who were brought up in a household where doors were always flung open wide and visitors made welcome, may have developed a natural inclination to engage with the world without ever having to work at developing a social side to their personality.  For these people social competency is as natural as breathing.

Others may however have been brought up in a more closed and isolated environment. Perhaps there was a very small family circle, visitors were infrequent and the front door remained closed. In households where the friends of children were not encouraged and visits to relatives continually avoided, there may have been no opportunity for those social skills to develop.

In those situations it is perhaps understandable why the art of engaging in small talk was never developed or why the skills required to ensure that one is heard against a background of loud squabbling voices were not well honed.  And when in life there are tasks ahead which will be difficult to complete there can be a natural tendency to avoid those situations.

If that avoidant behaviour continues and is carried over from childhood into teenage years and on into adulthood, it is perhaps more easy to understand how phobias can gradually develop.

So what is to be done?  Is the SAD sufferer doomed to a life of isolation?  Certainly not – although that is not to say that there can always be an easy transition from social avoidance to party time.

If social competences form a skills set, we can continue to learn new skills whatever decade of life we are in.  Of course some new tasks may be easier to take up than others but a key starting point is that belief that change really is possible.

One approach to achieving change is to first acknowledge the extent of the challenges and to then consider what remedial action is possible and tolerable. Depending upon the severity of the anxiety level that first step may require support from a friend or perhaps a professional counsellor or therapist. 

Often a first step can be to work through an understanding of why those concerns exist. Once the concern is normalised and understood the client can then move towards some form of graded exposure. This means mustering the courage to go and experience one of the forthcoming events which is being avoided. It is a challenging line to cross which is why good support can be so important.  

And then perhaps just as in the workplace, it can be helpful to follow up that experience with a review. How was the experience against what was expected? What went well? What was uncomfortable and yet just about tolerable. Equally importantly, what was clearly too much and needed to be left until another day.

If it is possible to openly explore the experience with a trusted friend or partner who will support and not criticise, then perhaps there can be a growing realisation that lasting change is possible.  And if it should be too difficult to talk with anyone in the family or friendship circle, that may also be where the therapist comes in.

It is important that this experiential work is seen in a realistic light.  There is rarely an easy transition from being out in the cold and feeling ill at ease to suddenly becoming socially active.  Difficult and challenging skills take time to master.

It is also important to maintain a sense of proportionality.  This work is not about suddenly developing a very different personality. It is not about converting a recluse into a social butterfly. This work is about becoming able to engage and to become more comfortable in potentially difficult situations.  It is about moving to a place where it is possible to participate even if that sense of feeling slightly uncomfortable, remains. 

This type of work focusses on an easing of that fear, looking to achieve a containment of the concern and a reduction in the level of trepidation. We are looking to reach the point where it is possible to go out, perhaps with a partner and to participate rather than avoid even if socialising in a noisy gathering is never going to be the preferred way of spending a winter’s evening.

And the end result?   This work is not about abolishing the safe zone but expanding it.  If it is possible to stay with the process, this may become a gradual but helpful life change.  And this type of change really can both occur and be long lasting. 

The evidence for that belief in change?  Well I suspect you and I have probably both lost count of the number of times we have heard a someone say after attending an event that ‘ I did not want to go – but now I am really glad I did’. 

I wonder if sometime in the not too distant future those may become your comments!


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st December 2016

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