Data from Bupa UK Insurance's telephone self-referral service Direct Access shows a big drop (-21%) in consultant bookings for mental health issues in December compared to other months of the year. Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director of Mental Health at Bupa UK, explains many people find this time of the year challenging, especially if they have social anxiety. Here he addresses questions about what the condition is, how you can support someone with it and when they should seek help (regardless of what time of the year it is).
What is social anxiety and how can it manifest itself?
Social anxiety disorder is characterised by a persistent fear or anxiety about situations that involve social interactions.
Those affected may feel excessively nervous about being around other people and having to talk to them, self-conscious in front of other people or worried in the lead up to a social event.
You may notice them avoiding places where there will be other people, cancelling planned social activities, or looking uncomfortable around other people.
Why is Christmas an especially difficult time for people with social anxiety?
Christmas is a celebratory season, and often our diaries are filled with social events for friends, family and colleagues. However people who suffer from social anxiety may find Christmas particularly difficult, and feel uncomfortable or worried both in the run-up to the event and during a social occasion.
At Christmas, it’s a combination of frequency, quantity and the type of social occasion which can be overwhelming for those struggling with social anxiety. Throughout the rest of the year, we socialise with friends and family who we are used to speaking to all the time and who we feel comfortable with but Christmas sees an increase in social activities with people who we may be less comfortable with. The work Christmas party for example can be difficult for those already struggling with social anxiety.
What can people do to help and advocate for friends and family who are suffering at this time of year?
An important part of managing social anxiety is letting the person with social anxiety know that they can say ‘no' to events, if they’re not comfortable. Christmas is often a time of multiple celebrations and social events, which can cause those with anxiety to become overwhelmed. In order to be supportive of someone with social anxiety it's important not to pressure them into social events that make them feel uncomfortable, but also balance this with making them feel included and inviting them to events where they're more likely to feel relaxed like having a cup of tea and a mince pie in a smaller group.
Do you have any ideas of strategies sufferers can use to help themselves if their anxiety starts to give them trouble?
Communication is key. For someone living with social anxiety, it’s helpful if they can explain to others how they feel, and if they need to cancel their plans last minute because they feel anxious. This will help their friends understand, and help them think about how to adapt social events to work for them in future. If they do have a social occasion in the diary that they’re feeling anxious about, they should go with a friend or someone who understands any concerns they may have and that they feel comfortable with. That way they can lean on them if they may be struggling and step outside for five minutes of air to breathe deeply and step out of the situation.
If they’re in the midst of social anxiety, things can get overwhelming fast. They need to watch their breathing, some deep breaths can help slow things down again, and shift their focus onto something else other than the social situation at hand, thinking about social anxiety only makes the attack worse.
Whilst at Christmas it may be tempting for someone with social anxiety to cling to alcohol for support if they’re feeling anxious, it’s important they moderate the amount of alcohol they have as it won’t make them feel any better.
What are the most important things to do if someone is having an anxiety attack?
If you’re with someone who may be experiencing an anxiety attack then take them away from the situation, ideally outside for fresh air, and sit with them to allow for the attack to pass. After someone has had an anxiety attack, they may want to go home rather than re-enter the situation and it’s important to support them in this decision if that’s what they want to do.
If you or a loved one is struggling with their mental health seeking early medical advice may help reduce feelings of anxiety in the future. At Bupa, our Mental Health Direct Access is a self-referral service which allows customers to speak to a specialist mental health consultant without needing a GP referral.