Social anxiety sufferers find ways to cope during the season of parties

People struggling with social anxiety can use tools ranging from taking small steps out of their comfort zone at a party to joining an improv class.

Social anxiety affects about 12 per cent of the population, psychologist says

Cameron Algie (centre) founded an improv group in Toronto after improvisation techniques for theatre helped him to conquer debilitating social anxiety. (Adrianne Gagnon)

Are you a party animal or a party ghost?

People who suffer from social anxiety find this time of year particularly tough. The holiday cheer and interaction with family, friends and colleagues can leave many scared to the point of avoidance.

"Social anxiety is [affecting] about 12 per cent of the population. It's actually the fourth most common mental health difficulty," says Judith Laposa, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.  

"It's extraordinarily common."

A Public Health Agency of Canada report released earlier this year found that approximately one in 10  —  or 3.5 million — Canadians access health services for mood and anxiety disorders every year.

At the heart of social anxiety, according to Laposa, is a fear of negative evaluation. Witticisms might not flow easily, and you're always one joke away from a groaner. This only feeds into a growing sense of nervousness.

"We're afraid we're going to act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that are going to be embarrassing or humiliating and people are going to reject us," Laposa said.  

Some people think social anxiety is simply shyness. But it can be much more serious than that and have debilitating effects. 

Social interactions at parties and family gatherings often leave Katherine Barbisan, 29, stressed.

"It's making up these conversations. I tend to stumble over my words for some reason," said Barbisan, who lives in Mississauga, Ont.

Katherine Barbisan, a 29-year-old paralegal, says even interactions at family gatherings provoke her social anxiety. (Katherine Barbisan)

She believes her social anxiety grew out of adolescence — a common occurrence with much larger implications, as experts are concerned about the high risk of mental health disorders among teens and young adults.

According to Statistics Canada's 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, 15-24 year olds have the highest rates of mood and anxiety disorders of all age groups.

Barbisan works every day as a paralegal, but social interactions can still leave her scared.

"I'm the type of person who will agree to something and then the day comes and it's, 'How can I get out of it?'" she said.

Laposa of CAMH says it's important for people who suffer from social anxiety to push themselves out of their comfort zones in small, slow steps as opposed to big jumps.

"So maybe if I'm going to a party this holiday season, I will set a goal of talking to one person that I've never talked to before," Laposa said.

"These small and steady steps can be really important in terms of decreasing avoidance."

Professional intervention can also help, she said, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps train the mind to deal with stressful situations.

'A safe place'

For one man, the road to recovery started with improvisational theatre techniques.

Cameron Algie says he has been living with social anxiety since the age of five. He used to think he was just shy, but it turned into something a lot more serious.

'Even the thought of leaving the house would make me throw up and feel overwhelmed,' says Algie, who started suffering from social anxiety as a child.

"I just didn't leave the house. Even the thought of leaving the house would make me throw up and feel overwhelmed."

Ten years ago, Algie realized he needed help. A therapist recommended improv, which would force him to think on the spot. It initially scared him but soon started working.

"Overall it helped me move from being very self-critical and judgmental, judgmental of others and judgmental of my brain and shift over to the 'yes' side of improv, an acceptance."

Algie decided to apply what he learned to help others like him, and about six years ago, started running an improv group called Play With Fire in Toronto. 

At a recent session, CBC News observed as about 10 participants ran through a gamut of games, such as word association. It's lightning fast and each of them has to answer quickly before they get embarrassed or feel judged.

"It's a safe place to make a fool of yourself and you don't have to worry about it," said one participant, Rob McCartney.

And for at least one member, the improv group has turned her life around. 

"I had really severe social anxiety and before I started the improv I was actually not leaving my house very much," said Rebecca Leenhouts.

"This gave me something to look forward to."

About the Author

Marcy Cuttler is an award-winning journalist and producer with 35 years of experience at CBC.