“I experience a lot of anxiety before big events. Sometimes, I worry for days or even weeks in advance. How can I stop feeling so stressed and enjoy myself?”
A lot of people find themselves worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. This is called anticipatory anxiety. It’s a particularly common problem for people with social anxiety disorder.
If you have anticipatory anxiety, you might worry about things that could go wrong in a social situation. You might also spend a lot of time worrying that people will judge you or that you won’t know how to act at an event.
Anticipatory anxiety may cause physical symptoms, including chest pain and shallow breathing. It can also make it hard to focus on your work or studies, so it’s a good idea to try bringing it under control.
Here’s what to do if you’re dreading an event.
When you are mindful, you are grounded in the present. Mindfulness can relieve anxiety, including anxiety about upcoming events because it helps you live in the moment instead of worrying about the future or thinking about the past.
Mindfulness can help you detach from negative thoughts, which can make them less distressing. One study found that mindfulness practices can reduce pre-event rumination in the days leading up to a feared event.
Research shows that there’s a correlation between mindfulness and social anxiety, with more mindful people reporting less social anxiety.
Meditation is a popular form of mindfulness practice. Mindful magazine has a good introductory article with tips for beginners.
Some people find apps like Smiling Mind and Tergar helpful. If your mind keeps wandering, listening to a guided meditation might help you stay focused. Tara Brach has some free recorded meditations on her website.
Make a list of social events that turned out better than you expected. Note down how you felt about the event beforehand, how you coped with any awkward moments during the event, and how you felt afterward.
There have probably been times where you’ve dreaded an event but found that it wasn’t nearly as bad as you’d imagined. When you next feel worried about an upcoming event, reviewing your list might give you some reassurance. Keep adding to it as you gain more experience with social events.
When you start worrying about an upcoming event, try speaking to yourself in a kindly way as though you were giving a friend some advice. Acknowledge your feelings, but challenge thoughts that are unhelpful and untrue.
It may help to ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I jumping to a conclusion without evidence to back it up?
- Is there any evidence to contradict this thought?
- Am I using all-or-nothing thinking?
- Is there any proof that contradicts this thought?
- Are my standards unrealistic?
- Am I assuming that I know what others are thinking? (This is called “mind-reading”)
Thought: “I can’t cope.” [All-or-nothing thinking]
Realistic alternative: “I have coped with events before. I may feel very uncomfortable at times, but I know I can do it again.”
Thought: “If I was a normal person, I wouldn’t get stressed.” [Unrealistic standards]
Realistic alternative: “Even confident people sometimes feel anxious before events. It’s very normal to be nervous.”
Thought: “Everyone will see how nervous I am.” [Mind reading]
Realistic alternative: “When I’m anxious, it feels as though everyone notices, but this is just an illusion. I’m far more concerned with my own thoughts and feelings than those of others, so it’s unlikely anyone cares too much about what I’m doing.”
Try to pinpoint exactly what is making you feel anxious about an event. When you have identified what is worrying you, you can think of ways to handle mistakes and setbacks.
- If I tell a joke and no one laughs, I’ll quickly change the subject and remind myself that the awkward feeling will pass.
- If I can’t think of anything to say, I can fall back on a safe question like “How do you know the host?”
- If I feel overwhelmed by the noise and heat of a party, I’ll step out onto the terrace for a few minutes and take a break.
- If I forget someone’s name, I’ll smile and say, “My mind’s just gone blank! Sorry, what was your name?” or “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name earlier?”
If you are frightened of having a panic attack at an event, it’s natural to worry about going. You may fear that everyone will notice or that you’ll do something embarrassing.
But if you know in advance what to do when you feel a panic attack starting, you may feel less anxious.
- Focus on your breathing. Take deep breaths in and out. Some people find it helpful to count their breaths.
- Accept that you are having a panic attack and that your symptoms will go away. Remind yourself that your body can’t maintain a high level of anxiety forever. Most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes.
- Use your senses to ground yourself in the present moment. Ask yourself, “What can I see, hear, touch, and smell?”
- Try not to run away from whatever is making you anxious. If you can stay in the situation and face your anxiety, you’ll teach yourself a powerful lesson: that even when a situation scares you, you can deal with it. This can give you the confidence to face the same situation again in the future.
If you have frequent panic attacks, you might be suffering from panic disorder. This NHS guide contains an in-depth explanation of what panic disorder is and what treatments are available.
You can’t predict how every conversation will go, but having a few topics ready to go can help you feel more confident when you’re talking to people.
We have several lists and articles you may find useful:
- Interesting things to talk about
- How to make intellectual conversation (including example topics)
- Questions to ask friends
- Small talk questions for every situation
It can also help to think about who you’ll meet at the event. For example, if your friend is throwing a birthday party and you know they have invited lots of their relatives, it would be a good idea to prepare a few general questions about where the family is from, where they grew up, and what your friend was like as a child.
If you are anxious about attending an event because your social skills need improving, practice them in the weeks or days leading up to the event. This can improve your confidence.
- If you’re worried about your small talk skills, practice chatting to your colleagues in the break room.
- If you’re worried about talking to people you don’t know, try to start a conversation with a barista or store clerk.
- If you’re worried that you don’t come off as approachable and no one will want to talk to you, practice using friendly, confident body language, including eye contact.
Learn a couple of breathing exercises you can do anywhere. Practice them until they feel easy and natural. Knowing that you have the ability to calm yourself down within a few minutes can help you feel less anxious about an event.
Here are two to try:
4-7-8 breathing: Inhale through your nose while counting silently to four. Hold your breath while counting to 7, then exhale while counting to eight. You don’t have to count seconds; do it at a pace that feels comfortable for you. Repeat the exercise several times.
Square breathing: Inhale while silently counting to four. Count to four while holding your breath, and then again while exhaling. Count to four for a final time before you inhale again.
Before you leave for an event, give yourself something to focus on other than how you feel. Getting out of your head can reduce your anxiety levels.
- “At my friend’s dinner party, I’ll introduce myself to three people I don’t know. I’ll learn their names and what they do for a living.”
- “At the wedding reception, I’ll catch up with all of my cousins. I’ll make small talk with all five of them for at least a few minutes each.”
- “At the office party, I’ll talk to two new employees who started last week. I’ll find out their names and what they do in the office.”
For example, you might decide that you’ll leave the event after an hour if you aren’t enjoying yourself. You don’t have to stay until the end. Deciding on an “exit time” in advance can reduce your anxiety. Make sure you don’t have to depend on anyone else for a ride home.
However, it’s best to practice staying in uncomfortable situations if possible. If you leave an event as soon as you feel uneasy, you are conditioning yourself to avoid things that make you nervous. It can help to remember that even if it feels awful, your anxiety will eventually ease by itself.
Give yourself an incentive to go out. For example, you could promise yourself that if you stay at the event for an hour, you’ll pick up a new movie or book on the way home. But you might find that the event you’ve been dreading is actually a lot of fun and that interacting with the people you meet is rewarding in its own right.
If you are dreading an event where you have to give some kind of performance, such as a speech, reframing your worry as positive anticipation may help.
Anxiety and excitement feel physically similar. For example, they can both make you feel jittery, slightly short of breath, and warmer than usual. Research shows that relabeling feelings of anxiety as excitement can help you feel better about a social situation.
People who feel anxious before social events sometimes self-medicate with alcohol or other substances. In the short term, this strategy can work because they can make you feel less inhibited.
But if you start relying on substances to make yourself feel better before an event, you’ll never address your underlying anxiety. It’s fine to have a couple of drinks at a social event, but it’s not a good idea to rely on self-medication as a crutch.
It’s natural to feel worried about an event if you aren’t sure what social rules or norms you’ll be expected to follow. This is more likely to be an issue at formal events, particularly dinners. For example, if you’ll be served a meal with lots of courses, you’ll need to know how to use several sets of cutlery. The Spruce has a good guide to using utensils at a formal dinner.
For advice on other specific situations, such as weddings and conferences, search the Emily Post archives for etiquette guides. Bear in mind that this advice is targeted at an American audience; social norms vary across countries and cultures.
Mindfulness practices, preparing a few conversation topics, preparing for difficult moments, giving yourself permission to leave early, constructive self-talk, and learning relaxation exercises can help. If you are performing at an event, reframing your nervousness as excitement can work.
It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen at an event, and if you aren’t sure what will happen, you may get anxious. If you have social anxiety, you may be worried that you’ll embarrass yourself in front of other people or that you’ll have a panic attack.