After a year of lockdowns, restrictions, and limited gatherings, social settings are opening back up and public events are growing larger. I’ve been invited to watch parties for sporting events, cookouts, and other gatherings with friends and family. I know there will be dozens of people heading to bars and restaurants to watch baseball or the Olympics on big-screen TVs, and while I’m sure a lot of them are excited for this opportunity to be out and about with other people again, people with anxiety often struggle with dread and panic about being social again.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, roughly 40 million Americans over the age of 18 deal with anxiety, which is about 18% of the population. For those of us who deal with anxiety, we know how big of a deal a night out can be. There are ways to ease the worry and pressure. Instead of heading for a big group outing, offer to have a smaller gathering with two or three friends. Look at the venue’s menu online ahead of time, so you have a plan for what you’re going to order, maybe where you’re going to sit, and what kind of atmosphere you will encounter there. Arrive earlier in the evening, before the restaurant gets crowded, or opt for outside dining, where you have the feeling of a bigger, more open space.
Even if you don’t deal with this kind of anxiety yourself, it’s very likely that you may be around someone who does. Look for the signs of a friend who is struggling or feeling overwhelmed. If they seem troubled or panicky in a crowd, suggest moving to a less crowded area or taking a walk to get some air and a literal breather. Most of all, ask them how you can help ease their anxiety, whether that’s with a simple hug or a listening ear.
Not everyone who struggles with anxiety will voice their needs, which makes it hard for you as a loved one to know what to do. People who already feel overwhelmed by a social situation might also feel ashamed or embarrassed that they are having difficulty handling a “normal” event. There is no shame in needing some space or needing to withdraw to recharge your mental batteries.
Sometimes the anxiety gets so bad, the person has a panic attack. These can come on suddenly and at the most inconvenient times. Someone who is having a panic or anxiety attack might display a range of internal and external symptoms such as a heightened sense of fear, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and even nausea. This can be scary for anyone to deal with on their own.
If you see someone showing these signs, realize they may feel paralyzed. Ask them if they need help getting out of a large crowd or a busy area. They may feel too overwhelmed to move through a swarm of people on their own. One of the techniques that help people in the midst of a panic attack re-center themselves is to step out of the environment, and focus on the tiny details. What the air smells like, how the carpet feels under their shoes, how the fabric of a chair feels, what pattern is in the wallpaper.
Another way to help a friend who is feeling panicky is to help them slow down their breathing so they don’t hyperventilate. The easiest breathing exercise to remember is the 4-7-8 technique. With this, you inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. This method forces you to slow down your breathing and sends a signal to your brain that you’re not in any danger.
Distracting the brain with some new stimuli, like food or water, can also be a great way to ground yourself mentally. Obviously, choosing alcohol to numb the anxiety isn’t a good choice and can ultimately make everything worse.
I struggled with telling people what I was going through for a long time. It was hard for me to find the right words and especially to admit I needed help. Once I did start opening up to my loved ones, however, I noticed how much lighter I felt. It didn’t erase all my symptoms, but being honest shared the load of what I was going through, and made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Share your story, either in the comments, or with someone you trust. Doing so could change your life.