I’m Socially Anxious, Always
Sometimes it’s the things in life that are supposed to be the easiest that turn out the hardest. Most days that is the case for me. I can talk to a room of 500 people, I can run a business meeting with a room of important CXOs but if you ask me to face ordering a sandwich in a shop I’m going to start panicking and it’s going to take me at least an hour to calm down afterwards. Welcome to the madness that is social anxiety.
I didn’t actually realise I suffered from social anxiety for quite a long time. I thought it was normal or just that I disliked small talk. It wasn’t until I actually found out a lot more and was talking through this with a therapist that it turned out I am indeed anxious and my behavioural patterns are not normal. Looking back it seems that ever since my early teens I’ve suffered from social anxiety and whilst it is not as strong now as it once was it has a massive impact in my life.
Business meetings are one thing – they have a defined structure, flow and content. Presentations to large group are much the same (and are generally a mostly one-way affair). Having to attend a networking even and tell someone my name is truly terrifying. I’ve avoided many over the years and missed out on several business opportunities as a consequence.
When it comes to one-on-one (or one-on-many) interactions without a rigid structure I panic. I am actually forget the basics of how a conversation works (often remembering days later what I should have said in response to a question when I’m replaying it in my head over and over again), I spend days or even weeks leading up to an event feeling terrified and after a couple of hours I am physically and mentally exhausted and all my energy for the week is gone. I may not like small talk – but this isn’t normal, this is part of social anxiety.
“Hi, I’m John, how are you?”
What will people think of me? Are they judging me? Is my sandwich order correct or is someone thinking it’s weird? Was I supposed to say that or was it inappropriate? Am I happy in this silence or is the silence my fault? Do I look weird because I’m trying to be comfortable or is this how I normally look? Why is everyone else getting proportionally more social contact than I am? What do I do with my hands – are they supposed to be there? Did I just lie about some fact accidentally to move the small talk on – what if everyone finds out? Why can’t I think of anything to say I’m sure that I’m somewhat interesting normally? What if I’m not interesting and everyone can see that? Who is even going to want to talk to me anyway? Maybe I am interesting, actually no I’m probably just egotistical and why would anybody want to talk to me then?
In the hypothetical 10 seconds that have passed since John introduced himself I’ve just looped a hundred questions several times and am staring with a blank expression on my face. By this point any answer is probably the wrong answer which then triggers a cycle of “Do I pretend I didn’t hear, should I ask him to repeat or just shout a random answer?” and another 10 seconds pass. It would be hilarious if it was on Peep Show in someone else’s head rather than it actually happening to me whenever I end up in a social situation where there are more people I don’t know than I do know. It’s frustrating because I do have friends, I can talk to them for hours at a time and I enjoy interacting – it just took me many years to build that collection of friends up in the first place. Add all of this to being introverted and my energy stores are gone if I have to talk to people.
Karaoke… Not Great for Anxiety
That’s all well and good but so what? Well the last couple of weeks have been extremely tough for me. I started back at university and on 11th September there was a pre-University social evening for all those in my course and a few staff. Now for most people coffee, cake, a trip around a museum and free food and drink would be an excellent evening. For me I had been filled with panic for months since this first came into my inbox. I tried to think of ways I could get out of it without further hindering my ability to integrate into a small group of people I’d be working closely with and decided I had to do it.
I woke up the morning of that day dozens of times before my alarm went off. I’d had a massively broken night’s sleep waking up constantly with bad dreams about what would happen later that day. Added in to the normal anxiety mix was the fact that I’m a fair chunk older than most people on my course (although at the time I had no proof of this not knowing who else was actually going) and I didn’t drink and was convinced that everyone else would be raging alcoholics (not the case remotely). I tried to distract myself on the day and eventually decided it might help me to share some of how I felt with the internet so I started recording a video. I’m not sure it helped me nor whether it will anyone else but it felt important to do for once.
By the time I got to the centre of Bristol I was terrified and needed several bathroom breaks in the brief 20-minute walk from my car to the harbour arriving with seconds to spare. Thankfully I ended up, of all people on the course, bumping into the one person that I spoke to on my interview day and we ended up being the first to arrive. Somehow this reset me in to a bit more of a comfortable position as there was some familiarity to an otherwise alien situation. The irony being that on the actual interview day talking to this person had been insanely terrifying but now that seemed comforting by comparison.
I won’t go into details of the day but other than my stomach doing summersaults, many very long pauses and feeling elated and drained for the day to be other it actually went find. There were a couple of very brief moments I even felt myself. That is often the case – it’s not terrible. The world doesn’t end. The floor doesn’t open and swallow me home. Nobody has ever said or implied I’m worthless and shouldn’t be there. It’s all irrational – but that doesn’t stop the feeling. And it isn’t just in my brain – it’s physical and emotional.
The rest of the week didn’t get much better from an anxiety perspective. The Thursday evening, just about the time that I’d started to feel a little more relaxed with the dozen people I’d been seeing all week there was another social – this time with even more people – around 40 students plus staff for all three years doing the PhD. This one was pretty bad – karaoke was planned. My response that day had become physical – almost passing out, feeling feint whilst driving, my heart pounding. It’s like your body is preparing to fight a polar bear, your brain is convinced everyone at school is going to laugh at you walking out naked on stage and really you just have to do some bowling. Talk about a disconnect from reality.
That night was a lot more difficult and I was so exhausted afterwards (by 9pm) that I almost fell asleep on the drive home several times and passed out on the sofa.
A week in and more settled and I’m starting to feel calmer on the social anxiety front. Don’t get me wrong I’m still terrified and filled with fear on so many other levels around what people think and whether or not I’ll fail – but on a social perspective I do feel I can say hello to the people I’m around daily now.
How to Cope
Coping with social anxiety is something I’ve still not really worked out. My therapist suggested that I’d need to try some traditional behavioural therapy such as going out with him to the smoking hut and engaging with people. Thankfully that was such a scary prospect that the universe aligned in such a way I moved to a different country by the following week. God bless fate sometimes.
There are a few tips that have helped me out though. Although the last couple of weeks have left me petrified I was a lot better than I have been in the past and hopefully these principles may be able to help other people.
Firstly – a silence is a shared responsibility – not mine alone. If someone else is not talking to me it’s not solely down to me. The other person can ask questions, start talking to me or say something. Once I came to accept this it made social events a lot easier. I can repeat this to myself when I’m convinced it’s all down to me and know that actually it’s not.
Secondly – projecting is bad. What someone else is thinking is none of my business. I don’t really want everyone knowing (or even being concerned about) what I’m thinking and the same should apply the other way around. So what if they do or don’t like me? It makes no difference to me. Projecting what they could be thinking just adds to the anxiety and does absolutely nothing to help me. I’ve gone through phases of my life convinced (and I would offer as much evidence as you needed) that I was correct. The truth is that actually my perception of what is happening and the reality of the situation are quite difference. I should not listen to my head here. Once I realise that what I think the other person is saying is probably not right and even if it is so what, it’s not my business it helps. If the other person does hate me and has judged me does it really make a big difference and why should I even care?
And that takes me on to the most important part of all. I’m fairly sure when I crack this one I’ll have cracked all fears in my life. Live for the current moment – not the future and not the past. What I just said doesn’t matter – if it was amazing it doesn’t mean one way or the other my next comment will be as insightful and if I looked like an idiot from something I did then that doesn’t mean that’s what will happen next. It becomes very easy to start berating myself for what I did or did not do which gets into a negative reinforcement loop where as a consequence nothing happens. If I’m not doing that it’s really easy to get into a loop of what may happen if I do something or do not do something (this fits in with projecting other people above). In the moments I stop looking at what I did, stop thinking about what I may do and just exist then things are easier. I think this may be closer to what normal people experience – but who knows? How to actually achieve this I don’t know but what I try to do is remind myself of this when I’m getting caught up in the past or future. It can help to reset me if I’m dwelling and a couple of times allowed me to attempt to restart a conversation at times I never would have in the past.
This is me and I need to accept that and be happy with it. The flip side is that I’d also like to work on self-improvement and I know there’s ample room here. Writing about this has helped me to think a little bit more about my experiences and how I deal with these situations. I have no idea if this ramble will be of use to anybody else even if it just allows other people to know they are not alone. I’m not sure I have an insightful ending apart from to say I’m so glad the induction is over and there is no more karaoke or bowling planned anytime soon. I am very glad to have a quiet office with just me in at the moment – what a wonderful way to end the day with no anxiety at all!