Managing the Stress Around the Office Party

Five tips for making the best out of them.

Posted Nov 18, 2019

It’s two weeks until Thanksgiving. This means the holiday season is around the corner (or, judging by the ridiculous number of unsolicited catalogs I got in the mail this morning, I dare say it’s already here). The holidays are a great time to connect with family and friends, but they also bring up a lot of difficult conversations and unpleasant moments. Much will be published about such moments in the coming weeks. Today, though, I want to focus on a particularly dreadful type of situation we must all contend with during this time of year: the office holiday party.

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash
Work holiday party
Source: Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Whether you work for a fancy corporation that organizes a black-tie event or are being dragged by your colleagues to a low-key potluck in the office kitchen, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And whether you experience social anxiety or not, these “must-have-fun-it’s-the-end-of-the-year” events are difficult to navigate.

Today I’m sharing tips for how to make the best out of your work holiday parties. I’m drawing from my experiences as a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety, but also as someone who’s worked in many industries and, thus, has been to all kinds of disastrous holiday work parties (although never quite as bad as the one from the movie Office Christmas Party). And not to geek out too much, but I’m structuring them based on the process model of emotion regulation, which was created by James Gross at Stanford University and stipulates that there are five ways of managing difficult situations.

1. Do Not Overcommit

Perhaps you’ll be invited to multiple end-of-year parties (maybe you work for a large corporation or are being dragged to events by your spouse or friends). If this is the case, keep in mind that you do not have to attend every single party. It’s okay to sit some of them out. When it comes to social interactions and networking, quality is just as important (frequently even more important) than quantity. Try to prioritize and spend your time and emotional energy on the parties that matter the most. Also, you don’t have to attend every party from beginning to end, sometimes making a “quick appearance” is perfectly fine.

2. Set Goals

Regardless of how many parties you attend and for how long, it’s super important to go into those social situations with clear goals. Are you looking to develop a stronger relationship with the people in your team? To bond with your boss? To better understand what motivates your employees every day? To eat good food and have a good laugh? When I teach cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to my clients, this is one of the first things I emphasize as being key to overcoming obstacles in their lives: to have clear goals that can 1) serve as a compass and 2) provide an objective measurement of success. Same here. You’ll be way more effective, feel less anxious, and have a lot more fun if you approach these situations with clear, actionable, and measurable goals. For example, talking to two people from another department. Or making sure that you chat with that person from accounting who always seems very nice.

3. Be Mindfully Present

Sometimes, we have no choice but to attend certain parties; it can be tempting to engage in “subtle” forms of avoidance, such as drinking excessively, standing in a corner looking at the phone, or only talking to one person. In CBT, we call these “safety behaviors,” and we teach clients to slowly reduce their reliance on them (which, is easy to say but takes time to do). As you plan which parties you’ll be attending and start refining your goals, think of any “safety behaviors” you might be tempted to carry out. See if you can reduce your reliance on them. Maybe you can have fewer drinks than usual, or put your phone in your coat pocket and engage with others, or talk to a few new people.

4. Say "No" to the Anxious Voice in Your Head

If going to this type of event makes you anxious (or uncomfortable), it is quite likely that any anxious thoughts or worries you have about them won’t go away the minute you walk into the party. Rather, these thoughts are likely to pop up at random times during the event. You’ll be in the middle of a conversation and all of a sudden you'll get hit by thoughts: “Oh my, what if I said the wrong thing?" “Why is she looking at me like that? I’m clearly not interesting.” “I can’t believe I just told that same story again.” And so on.

Once again, I would recommend that you do a bit of party-prep so that you’re ready to tackle these anxious thoughts when they come up. In CBT, we would ask you to identify three to five thoughts that you know are likely to come up based on your prior experiences so that when they do pop up, you can mentally point at them and say, “I’m having the anxious thought that__" and resist the temptation to buy into it. This is probably one of the hardest exercises to do, it’s okay if it takes time (it might also be necessary to read CBT self-help books or work with a CBT therapist).

5. Take Stock, Mindfully

At the end of the party (or even before it’s over), your mind is itching to process everything (everything) that happened. And before you realize, you’re stuck ruminating about what you said and did, wondering what others thought, and—quite frequently—assuming the worst. You might have thoughts along these lines: “Oh no, I was a total mess.” “Nobody will like me after tonight.” “I won’t be able to bond with anyone." This type of rumination is called post-event processing and it can be problematic, as it will make you worry even more next time you have to attend a difficult social situation.  

I recommend: A the end of the party, you take a few minutes to mindfully take stock of your performance. Think of the two to three things that went really well and the two to three that could be different next time. Crucially, time box the exercise so that it only lasts a few minutes (set up an alarm if you need to). Also, when reviewing the things that perhaps didn’t go so well, focus on what you could change in the future, as opposed to what you were not able to do in the past.

If you’d like to learn more about social anxiety, anxiety, stress, or CBT, please get in touch.

As always, remember that these posts are for informational purposes only. If you think that you—or someone you know—might be struggling with social anxiety or any other disorder, please consult with a mental health professional.

Copyright Dr. Amelia Aldao, Ph.D.

LinkedIn Image Credit: 4 PM production/Shutterstock

References

Gross, J. J. (2015). The extended process model of emotion regulation. Psychological Inquiry, 26, 130-137. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1047840X.2015.989751

Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271-299. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.2.3.271