It’s 5pm on the night of the work Christmas party and everyone is whirling around the office in a heady fog of hairspray, aftershave and excited chatter. Everyone, that is, except me. Unfortunately I can’t make it, as I feel ill. Or I have family staying. Or... well, anything really.
My name is Louisa and I have party phobia. The thought of going into a room filled with people I don’t know – all making hilarious small talk, drinking cocktails and generally having fun – leaves me dry-mouthed with fear. Which makes the Christmas party season a minefield of pathetic excuses and stuttering exits as I desperately dodge the relentless stream of social gatherings.
Sounds familiar? According to experts, more than one in 10 of us will suffer from some form of social anxiety at some point in our lives. 'Social anxiety, or phobia, is a persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations,’ explains clinical psychologist Dr Fiona Pender.
My brain empties and I’m so nervous of making a fool of myself or being dismissed as boring
'It’s more than just shyness – it’s a debilitating fear of doing or saying something embarrassing in social situations. As humans, we are such social creatures that a fear of not fitting in is hardwired into our nature. A social “failure” really can feel like a social “death”.’
The weird thing is, I’m not like this in my day-to-day life. I’ve got a close-knit group of six best friends I’ve had since school and a phonebook full of mums who I see nearly every week. Meeting new people is something I enjoy, and in a one-to-one situation I’m confident and even, dare I say it, fun.
But multiply that one person by 20, throw in a few drinks and a dance floor, and I literally feel sick with nerves. My brain empties and I’m so nervous of making a fool of myself or being dismissed as boring that I end up saying nothing at all.
This anxiety is incredibly common, yet very few people admit to it as it sounds so trivial. But if you’re hoping to network at a party or even just make new friends, it’s anything but.
Whenever I reel off an excuse as to why I can’t make an event, I often feel close to tears, furious with myself that I haven’t got the courage to go.
I wasn’t always like this. In my teens and early 20s, I was at every party and often the last to leave. But when I was 24, I moved to London and got a job a few weeks before the office Christmas party.
I went along, feeling totally out of my depth. Casting around for something to say, I asked a colleague, 'Have you been on any nice holidays this year?’
He laughed in my face. 'For Christ’s sake, Louisa, we’re not at the hairdressers,’ he said, and walked away.
It sounds ridiculous. But that was the moment I became totally stuck for words. I ended up hovering round the edges of the party and leaving about 10 minutes later, in tears and mortified that I hadn’t managed to stay and have fun.
Sixteen years on, my party phobia has now got to the point where I will do anything to avoid going to them.
Take my 40th birthday in September. My husband organised a surprise low-key do, which consisted of hanging out with my six best friends in my kitchen – for me, it was perfect, but I can imagine it sounds bizarre to some people.
I even dodged throwing a leaving do from my job of five years, saying I couldn’t get childcare. My fear: what if no one showed up? And worse: if they did, what was I going to say to them?
According to experts, to overcome a fear of parties you need to go to them. 'Avoiding the feared situation maintains the problem,’ says Dr Pender. 'If you don’t attend the party you were worried about looking foolish at, you feel relieved. Yet you have missed the opportunity to discover that actually you won’t make a fool of yourself and it becomes a downward spiral.’
I became totally stuck for words and left 10 minutes later, in tears and mortified
According to chartered psychologist Felix Economakis, director of London’s Heath clinic, party phobia could be down to the lack of social cues – those encouraging smiles and nods – that are missing when we’re in a busy situation and people are either looking around at other guests or checking out the queue for the bar.
'When you’re anxious, you’re looking for body language that says, “I’m interested in what you’re saying,”’ says Economakis. 'The problem with 100 people at a party is you don’t have that connection. You might not get the smiles, which can then make you feel, “They don’t like me” or “I’m boring them”. At a party, the reality is that they won’t have formed an opinion of you yet. Don’t take it personally if people don’t immediately smile at you.’
Yet what if you simply don’t want to go to parties? Is that really such a bad thing? 'People have to have a degree of honesty with themselves,’ he adds. 'If you’re naturally introverted and would rather be on Facebook at home, then fine. But I find that someone who says they can talk to people but chooses not to is relatively rare. Instead there is usually some traumatic experience in their past.
'The tipping point comes when anxiety stops you from achieving your goals. If it means you can’t go to the party and so can’t network, or you’re not making friends, then you need to seek professional help.’
He suggests making a deal with yourself. 'Before you go to a party, focus on the part of you that doesn’t want to go and and look at why. Perhaps you’re feeling that you have to stay till the end, or it’s going to be horrible, or no one will talk to you. My advice is to make a deal with this part of your brain by saying you’ll go for 20 minutes and then see how you feel. If after that time you are doing OK, stay for another 20 minutes. But if you are having a difficult time, then leave. It means you have a safety net in place.’
I can see my party phobia is already having an impact on to my two young sons, Chester and Huxley. Both had their birthdays in October and neither had a party, because I couldn’t face the stress of hosting.
Not only does this make me a terrible mother it also, according to Economakis, is down to an underlying fear of being judged negatively. 'People who have this anxiety worry about anything – food, compatibility of guests, people not having a good time. The solution they are looking for is to please all people at all times, and to have guarantees. Failing that, they then just avoid hosting.’
So what is the answer? 'The good news is that social anxiety is absolutely treatable,’ says Dr Pender. 'The National Institute of Care and Health Excellence [NICE] recommends cognitive behaviour therapy [CBT] and a psychological [talking] therapy.’
This involves relaxation techniques to help manage your anxiety, role-playing situations and developing 'scripts’ to help you with conversation openers. 'This can be incredibly helpful in gaining confidence,’ says Dr Pender, who adds that the first step is contacting your GP.
But what if you only have 'mild’ party phobia and want to 'cure’ yourself? Then draw comfort from the other people also suffering in silence. According to Economakis, only around 20 per cent of people at a party are having a great time and the other 80 per cent will be racking their brains for something to say and wondering how soon they can leave.
So the next party invite I get, I won’t make up an excuse. Instead I’ll go along, smile, and who knows? I might even join in a conversation…