Let's talk social anxiety, shall we? It is possible to fight back.
If you’ve ever dealt with social anxiety, you’ll know how crippling it can be. Even mundane things like going to the gym or picking up milk from the store become overwhelming tasks that are taken over by intrusive and often irrational thoughts playing on repeat like a gif.
Social anxiety manifests itself in many aspects of life, and involves an intense fear of certain social situations, especially those where one is unfamiliar or in which they feel they may be watched, judged or evaluated by others.
Reflecting on my entire life, I know that I’ve been struggling with varied levels of social anxiety since I was a child. For example, when I made the transition from senior kindergarten to grade one, I was so overwhelmed that I cried hysterically upon arrival for a solid two weeks, forcing my mom to stay in the classroom with me. When I settled down, she’d sneak out. Some 25 years later, I still remember some of those days crystal clear.
My social anxiety continued on throughout my entire school experience, but was amplified when I started high school. I used to be afraid of being late to class because I didn’t want people to look or stare at me. Sometimes, I’d even skip the class altogether if I didn’t make it in my seat before the bell rang. I used to also fear answering questions in class, or sitting at the front of the room; basically anything that drew attention to me. Taking the stairs was also a trigger for me, as I was afraid I’d trip and people would look at me and laugh.
My socially anxious behaviours continued as I moved onto college and toward my initial ‘breakdown’ or low point that landed me in emerge and with an official mental illness diagnosis. Even as I joined the workforce upon completion of school, I had a hard time initially bonding and communicating with my co-workers, and wouldn’t take part in team lunches or outings if I could due to overwhelming fear.
Discovering my social anxiety disorder
This year I made a trip to a new psychiatrist at the hospital because it had been about 10 years since my initial diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and mild depression. After learning a lot about my illnesses through my work with Sarnia Speaks, I thought that there might have been something more going on. After a long discussion, the psychiatrist indicated that she thought I was also dealing with social anxiety disorder and mild obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Upon getting this opinion, all of those years and memories began to make more sense.
No matter how evolved I’ve become in my journey, social anxiety has stuck with me for as long as I can remember. I work in a field now where I often have to be ‘on’, or so I like to call it: personable, sociable, witty, a little humourous, and able to hold a conversation with anybody. Some might refer to this as the ‘mental illness mask’. Luckily, years of resilience training (also known as dealing with tons of shit!) have come in handy and allowed me to function mostly well with social anxiety. On most work days or at events, I can swing being ‘on’ without a hitch (followed by an inevitable crash at home.)
But then there are times when my body freezes up and I can’t seem to find my ‘on’. This was the case when my fiancée Bill and I went to a wedding this past Saturday. Given my emotionally fragile state as I navigate going on medication for severe depression, I was expecting the day to be harder than usual, but felt prepared.
For me, it’s a classic scenario on days when I know I have to be at an event or function around a lot of people I don’t know. I wake up feeling pretty decent and optimistic for a good day. Slowly, as the minutes pass, anxious feelings and thoughts begin to emerge. I’m finding it difficult to breathe by the time I’m getting myself ready, and by the car ride, I feel like I’m on the verge of vomiting.
In order to not give a complete play-by-play of every event that transpired that evening, I’ll condense to a few bullet points of thoughts I experienced at any given time that night:
How do I hold my hands?
Should I put them on my hips or rest them on the table? Should I hold my clutch in my hand? Put my hands behind my back?
This dress is too low. People can see my bra. (Adjusts every five seconds)
My lipstick definitely looks like crap. People are looking at it right now and probably want to throw up.
I have to pee. There’s no way I can get up in front of everyone. They will all look at me. There is no escape route. I guess I’ll have to hold it.
Everyone is going to watch me when I go up to get food. They are judging me. They think that I’m definitely going to take way too much food.
What if I fall up the steps to the bathroom? Everyone will see my underwear and laugh. I have to hurry up because they will think I’ve been in here too long and start talking about me.
I don’t want to ask that person to move so I can grab a bottle of water. I’ll just wait until they move then I’ll go.
Why can’t I make conversation with these people? They definitely think I’m the biggest bitch right now.
These intrusive thoughts continually ran through my mind the entire time. I know I’ve been to weddings or events where I’ve felt uncomfortable before, but this was on a whole other level. I felt completely frozen. It was like every part of my body had frozen except for my mind. I honestly tried as hard as I could to act as normal as possible, but I couldn’t help realize I was not being myself.
The minute speeches and dinner were done, I was insistent that we leave. On the way home, I felt the need to apologize to my fiancée that we had to leave so early. I was frustrated that anxiety seemed to have taken another night away from me. I was reminded how crippling anxiety in a social setting can be.
Despite how emotionally draining the entire experience was, upon reflection after the fact I realized that what I thought was a loss was really a win. Let’s be honest, I could have easily thrown in the towel before I even got out of the house, but I didn’t. I got ready, got in the car, survived the 45 minute car ride, made it to the wedding, stayed for almost five hours, and lived to tell the tale.
That’s when I realized I was more resilient than I let myself believe. Yes, getting through the wedding was metaphorically painful, but I did it. I began seeing a pattern of things I had done the day leading up to and during the wedding to prepare myself. In fact, I realized I had done these things many times when faced with a situation where I knew I’d experience social anxiety.
Five tips for fighting back at social anxiety
Make a plan in advance and determine an end point I always like to set an end point if I’m entering a situation that may be difficult for me. Knowing I have an end point helps me get through the situation.
Take your meds Make sure you take your meds on time every day. If you have meds for panic attacks, make sure you keep them handy in case you need them.
Wear comfortable clothing Comfort is key. When I get anxious, my clothes become one of the first things that start to bug me. That’s why I tend to buy my clothes one or two sizes bigger, so they are looser. Anytime I know I am going into a situation that has potential to trigger social anxiety, I choose a comfortable outfit.
Be honest While this may not work in all circumstances, I’ve found comfort in being open and honest with people when I am in a tough situation. By explaining to them how I feel nervous and struggle in social situations sometimes, it’s almost like I’m lifting a weight off my shoulders.
Be mindful When I am experiencing social anxiety, sometimes it helps me to step back from the situation (perhaps take a bathroom break), and embrace the anxious thoughts and be fully aware of what I’m feeling in that moment. Sometimes, I even verbalize them to myself. I find being present in those feelings allows me to reason and rationalize with them, which can sometimes help reduce the feelings and allow me to continue on.
There are many different techniques and methods to help fight social anxiety, but in my experience, facing those anxieties head on has proven most effective.
There will always be scenarios that arise where I will struggle more than others. But because I’ve slowly immersed myself into uncomfortable situations, I’ve developed good coping mechanisms to just make it through. And sometimes, making it through is more than enough.