4 Ways to Handle Stressful Social Situations

Seeing people at events, going to parties, or just casually hanging out with friends often seems like a great way for you or a loved one to have fun, relax, and catch up with the people who populate our lives. 

Unfortunately, these events that should be fun and reduce stress can sometimes actually cause more stress than we realize.


What is the best way to handle stress in these situations?

While there’s no way to avoid every aspect of stress in our lives (after all there’s a lot of research to support the idea that a certain amount of stress is actually good for us), there are ways to minimize the stress in situations that can help lower challenging behaviors, might ruin our enjoyment of the event, or cause us not to attend or take someone to the event at all. By following some or all of these ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) inspired interventions, a person might find themselves attending more events and increasing their emotional endurance for these types of situations in the process.

Events that have no defined end time can be daunting. The last thing anybody wants to feel is as if they’re trapped somewhere. Or, that they can’t leave when they want to. When making plans for a simple get together, you can always tell the people you are spending time with that you have to leave at a certain time. 

Should you have children that you know will only be able to tolerate an event for a half hour to an hour, a time limit is a great way to set them up for success. Used in ABA to often shape a non-preferred event with a beginning and an end (and also limit activities like screen time that might also be overly preferred), time limits are often accompanied with a visual like a timer. 

If the event is something like a concert, maybe you (or the person you are trying to get to do the event) only go for a certain amount of time? If able, you or the person you’re trying to get to do the activity can drive themselves (or get dropped off) if need be. Then, when a ride is needed, a person can be contacted to come for pick-up. Time limits are great ways to engage in social activities, but also have some control over how long a person participates. 

As time goes on you can even extend the time limits as this will allow you to work on flexibility, attend more events, and decrease the stress that social situations may still create.

If going to a large concert is something you or a person who is working on limiting stress in social situations is working on, see if the performance you wish to see is happening in a smaller venue. (Although, know that the smaller the venue, the more packed it might be. This can create issues if you or someone else has proximity issues with others.) Make sure that wherever the concert is taking place also has places to sit down. You or the person in question might have
sensory issues that are compounded by having to be on your feet all night. 

Sitting down will allow time to reset, regroup, and keep the events of wherever you are in perspective. If you’re asked to meet some friends for lunch at a place that is known for being packed, suggest that the meal take place at a different restaurant or perhaps you can meet outside. This will help greatly relieve the anxiety and stress that might come with entering and exiting a restaurant. On top of that, you can also limit the number of people in the group you are meeting with. If you’re a one-to-one person (or your child does especially well with a particular or preferred peer), tell who you are meeting that you’d like to keep things just you and them or you them and their child. 

If a group of 3-4 people works for you (or your child) then let that be known. Again, you can’t control all the variables. The more people you invite the more chances are that they might bring somebody else. At the same time, we don’t want to limit the number of people so much that we limit social opportunities. If you (or your child) can tolerate it, set a timer, and try attending a meeting or event even if the number of people in your meeting group expands slightly.

Try to set-up social events in places you or your child are familiar with. Knowing the place you are going to can make it easier for you to attend more social functions. Maybe there’s a restaurant where you really like sitting outside? Or, there’s a concert venue that is just big enough for you? Or, a park that is spacious enough for you to feel comfortable hanging out there? Maybe it provides your child with enough space to be part of a social situation, but also allow for needed sensory downtime? 

Whatever the event is, knowing where you are going can help relieve stress for everyone. Again, you might make plans to go somewhere and then, at the last minute, the plans change because somebody wants to go somewhere else or the familiar place you wanted to go to is unavailable. Seize this opportunity as a way to visit (and learn for yourself and your child) some place new, and work on flexibility in the process. As a final note, don’t only limit this to familiar places. 

If a major transition is happening, for example, your child is going to a different school, see if you can do a walk-through or several walk-throughs beforehand. Maybe there’s a large track or field they can play on during off hours? This way, when the transition to the new school starts your child (or you) is already familiar with this “new” environment.

It’s very easy to pre-visualize a stressful event in our minds. We can actually think we’ve experienced an event and all we’ve done is think about it. This can cause us to get nervous, imagine things that have happened that haven’t happened, and make us decide not to do something we want to do. Social stories are a tool to help people talk about an event, have an idea of what the event might be like, but also understand that everything will work out. 

You can’t control everything all the time. You can take steps to prepare for the unexpected but that doesn’t mean that the unexpected isn’t going to happen. Once the plans have been made just tell yourself (or your child) that you’re going, you’ll only be there for a certain amount of time, you’ve been to this place or events like this before, and you’re going to have a good time. You can even create a visual schedule on your phone if you or your child needs that. 

This will help structure the event and remove the open-endedness that might trip things up. Should the plans change, do your best to be flexible and provide yourself or your child reinforcements to do so. Don’t overthink the event too much. Now, should it change to the point of being a bad idea, you certainly don’t have to go. This is a decision to be made when that happens and not just when you or your child think it might happen.

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