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How to Make It Through a BBQ Cookout with Social Anxiety

BBQs are the ultimate warm-weather celebration. Nothing advertises the summer holidays like beer bottles on ice, tubs of potato or macaroni salad grouped on the picnic table, and the rich aroma of searing steak in the air—all the while, your husband channels his inner caveman. (Fire. Meat. Good.) Bonus points if you’ve got Katy Perry’s […]

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Posing a selfie during a BBQ cookout.
Photo by Slim Emcee on Unsplash.

BBQs are the ultimate warm-weather celebration. Nothing advertises the summer holidays like beer bottles on ice, tubs of potato or macaroni salad grouped on the picnic table, and the rich aroma of searing steak in the air—all the while, your husband channels his inner caveman. (Fire. Meat. Good.) Bonus points if you’ve got Katy Perry’s California Gurls in the background.

What’s there to NOT love about this all-American cookout tradition?

If you have social anxiety, the answer is people. BBQs are all about huge get-togethers that may include people you don’t know or family members you don’t get along with. Even the anticipation can get you so upset that you can barely eat, sleep, or focus. What can you do?

You’re not alone- but it sure feels that way

According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety disorder is the third-largest psychological affliction in the U.S., after depression and alcoholism. An estimated 7% of the population currently suffers from some form of this anxiety, which is triggered by feelings of being criticized or negatively judged by others.

By ‘others,’ we don’t just mean strangers- even those in-laws or cousins you never gelled with can trigger feelings of anxiety. This means that family BBQ cookouts can be just as gruelling as a gathering of strangers- maybe even worse, because you’ll likely see them again.

We know it’s tough, which is why we’ve compiled a list of strategies that can help you enjoy the bonuses of BBQing by overcoming the not-so-fun parts.

1. Resist the temptation to cancel

Although every fiber in your being is screaming at you to decline the cookout invitation or come down with something seriously contagious the morning of the event, don’t do it. Repeatedly canceling plans is only going to make your social anxiety even worse. Sure, you’ll be relieved at first, but over time, your world will get smaller and smaller and your social anxiety will become even more debilitating.

2. Prepare a list of things to talk about

When you’re socially anxious, one of your biggest fears is not being able to transition smoothly from an introduction to a real conversation, so make a list of light and neutral subjects to talk about. Children, hobbies, and favorite TV shows are all safe bets that can take the focus off of yourself during chats over ribs and coleslaw. (Politics are a bit iffy- with some crowds, it can turn a peaceful gathering into a debate.)

This coping strategy is especially beneficial when you know you will be around people who like to ask difficult or private questions. Setting up a plan and knowing your topic boundaries can be reassuring when you know that gossips are going to be in attendance.

3. Do some practice runs

If you’re worried about freezing up while trying to start or participate in conversations, rehearse a few intro lines with a friend or in front of the mirror. It sounds hokey, but you’ll feel prepared, which can lessen anxiety and uncertainty.

While you’re probably going to be just fine with a little preparation, one tip that’s a guaranteed icebreaker is to ask the other person questions. People love to talk about themselves (why do you think reality TV is here to stay?) and questions like “How long have you known (the host)?” or “How’s it going over in accounting/marketing/whatever?” are always solid openers.

4. Bring a plus-one

Ask your significant other, best friend, or someone else you’re especially close to to be your plus-one. Most of us have people in our lives who are there for us in a minute if we need support or encouragement.

For example, you can text your best friend and say, “I have to go to an office BBQ on Monday and I’m losing it! Want to come along?” If they say yes, great! If they have to decline due to other commitments, contact someone else who’s always had your back. Not only will they make you feel less vulnerable, but if you think about bailing the moment you smell hamburgers grilling and hear chatter, they can get you through the door.

5. Go easy on the coolers

BBQs and alcohol tend to go hand in hand, especially bottled alcohol that can be piled on mountains of ice in the summer heat. If you’re feeling especially anxious, you may be tempted to knock back a few to settle your nerves before you start talking to other guests.

By all means, enjoy a bottle or two of your favorite beer or cooler, but don’t go overboard in your efforts to relax. The more uninhibited you become, the more likely you are to say or do something that will make your social anxiety worse later on.

6. Bring a really cool dish

BBQs are all about good food, which is not limited to hot dogs, hamburgers, steak, and coleslaw. One especially way to get a conversation started is to bring a salad or main course that’s unique AND looks delicious. For example:

Dishes that reflect your cultural heritage can also be a welcome addition to the picnic table. You might even have fun modifying it for a BBQ setting. Just don’t be surprised when people approach you all evening, asking for the recipe.

Conclusion

BBQ cookouts can be the highlight of your summer or the worst part of it, depending on how you look at it. Sure, there will be a lot of people there, including a lot who you don’t like or even know. But if you arrive with a few safe conversation topics, a good friend, a tasty dish or all three, your tolerance for being outside your comfort zone can go up, and you’ll even be on your way to developing the social skills that have you looking forward to the rest of the summer.

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