There is nothing worse than walking into a room at a drinks party expecting to see a few familiar faces, only to realise you know no one. You stand, clutching your champagne glass and try to look enthralled by a floral arrangement, hoping someone will come to your rescue. It might be hard to feel confident in moments like these but you can almost guarantee there are a dozen other people in the room feeling the same way.
Alcohol is often used to relieve the uncomfortable feelings you sometimes get in social settings, which is why socialising alcohol free can be a challenge. Social anxiety – feeling shy or nervous in unfamiliar social situations – is perfectly normal. It’s also very common for people to use alcohol to cope with the symptoms. Whether they use it before they go out, or while they're out, many people think alcohol will make them more sociable, confident and less shy. But many of us with social anxiety end up drinking to excess in an attempt to manage our feelings.
One of my friends can’t go on a date without having downed at least three drinks. But you need to remember while two drinks can help calm the nerves and help you relax, anything more than that starts to have a negative effect. And who stops at two drinks?
Alcohol can seem like the solution for soothing your social anxiety but what’s more likely is you’ll end up creating the situation you feared in the first place – public embarrassment. Here are a few things you can do to help you feel confident tackling social occasions alcohol-free:
GRAB A GLASS
Get a wine or champagne glass and fill it with fizzy water – that way you're still holding something and you don't feel out of place. Also, if you have a glass in your hand, people are less likely to pressure you into having an alcoholic drink. I’ve started to bring my own drinks with me to parties, in case the only thing on offer is wine or beer. I keep a six pack of Diet Coke in the car at all times, in case of emergencies.
Having a drink or something else in your hand to hold can also help with nervous energy. When I first went alcohol free, I found myself smoking more. Having a cigarette was something to do in those anxious moments when you first arrive at a party. I’ve got more used to the whole thing now and it’s not much use looking after my liver if I’m not looking after my lungs too, so I’m knocking the cigarettes on the head. But it made me realise the importance of having something else to do other than chat in social situations, when you’re coping without booze. Food is a great solution to this. I’ve started arriving at parties with crisps and dips as a gift for the host, which is a good ice-breaker.
You need to get used to coping without booze in social settings. Practice starting conversations with people – it will give you the confidence to talk to strangers. Speak to the person in the lift with you, or the person serving you coffee. Put your phone down when you're out. Ask a stranger a question or start a conversation.
If you don't feel comfortable asking a question, give a compliment, which can help to relax the other person as well and make you both feel better. Telling someone you like their dress or their shoes will brighten up their day, and help break the ice.
GIVE IT YOUR ALL
When you get to the party promise yourself that you’ll listen, ask questions and be fully present. This makes you so much more interesting than the drunk person who just talks and talks and isn’t having a two-way conversation.
KNOW YOU’RE NOT ALONE
If there’s one thing you can bet on it’s that you’re not the only nervous one in social settings. Rather than worry about what others think of you, keep in mind that they’re probably worrying about what you think of them. Put the focus outward rather than on yourself, and do what you can to put others at ease.
Maybe you need another person around. It’s much easier to feel confident arriving at a party with a friend so you don’t have to walk into the room all alone. It’s also worth seeking out other people at the party who aren’t drinking as nice to have someone else who’s in the same boat as you. Especially at the end of the evening when lots of the other guests might be plastered.
CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
Ask yourself why you’re anxious – do you have a fear of rejection or that someone is going to laugh at you? Do you feel good about yourself? My husband gave up drinking after years of using booze as a social crutch. He found the biggest revelation was that people still found him interesting when he was sober. In fact they found him more entertaining than when he was drunk.
He spent years steadying his nerves at the beginning of a party, by knocking back a few drinks. Once he realised he could get through an evening entirely sober and still enjoy it, the battle was won. A key part of social anxiety is distorted thinking. You’re convinced you’ll be judged and found lacking, that all eyes will be on you, that you’ll humiliate yourself. In fact, you’re more likely to humiliate yourself with a few drinks inside you than you are if you stay sober.
Alcohol may feel as though it’s helping but it can actually make our response to anxiety-provoking events tougher to get over – and can lead us to consume more alcohol than we’d planned.
If social anxiety is still causing you grief, it's worth asking for help. Look into getting some counselling. It’s possible to come up with ways to replace drinking with a different strategy to help you cope. A variety of techniques exist for reducing anxiety, including meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Rather than relying on liquid courage, explore ways you can get in better touch with your body and control runaway emotions and thoughts.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH ANXIETY
Anxiety is an essential part of our makeup that has kept us alive through the ages by alerting us to dangers and spurring us to take action. The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate anxiety entirely, but to manage it.
Social situations can be tricky, but there are things you can do to help ease the awkwardness without using alcohol as a crutch. You might find that giving up alcohol is the confidence boost you needed all along!