Social Anxiety, another disorder I am familiar with.
It began in my earlier years, right around the time when the bullying began.
It instilled such fear that I refused to present in front of the class. My assignments would be presented in front of only the teacher at the end of the day. I become isolated, and alone. I was probably thought of as a ‘loner’ at one point. Eating lunch alone, even then I would sit there and worry about what the other kids were thinking about me. If they didn’t speak ignorant words, I knew they were thinking it; rolling their eyes as they walked by.
This fear has followed me throughout my life, and had affected multiple areas of my life.
My greatest challenge was in nursing school, and having to work in groups and present in front of the class, later it was working with ‘actual’ patients. Come to think about it, this is probably when the panic attacks started. Having to face my fears was terrifying, but I knew if I ever wanted to have a career in nursing, and practice safely, then I would just have to ‘suck it up’ and do it. I remember the first time I had to call a doctor. I wrote out everything, according to SBAR, quickly rehearsed it in my mind, then called the doctor. I maybe got 4 or 5 stuttered words out, panicked and hung up.
I made my preceptor call back.
With practice, it has got easier. I still get anxious when having to discuss a patients care with a doctor, but I manage (what choice do I really have?). I usually get anxious with anyone with higher ‘authority’. Probably because I am afraid of saying something incorrect, or not making sense, or afraid of what I ‘look like’. When I get anxious in social situations, I become flushed, I blush, and my body temperature rises. At work, I know I can’t avoid those situations, or else I could compromise the patient, and could lose my job.
The repeated exposure has helped drastically at work, but I still have avoidant behaviours in my personal life with family and friends. I have been known to avoid gatherings with large groups, including family functions. A “large” for me is any gathering consisting of more than 3 people. Usually when I gone out with friends, at most, it has only been with 2 other people. I have missed weddings, parties, birthdays, and random gatherings out of fear. It has affected my relationships with friends and boyfriend’s along the way, and made it difficult to make new friends.
A million thoughts will occupied my mind, and repeat over and over again.
“What if I say something silly? What if I look uncomfortable and awkward? Will they notice how nervous I am? What if my face goes red? What if my voice trembles? What if I don’t make sense or ramble? Will people ask me questions I don’t know the answer to? Will people think I am stupid? Will I have to initiate the conversations? What if I can’t relate to the conversation? What if people wonder why I am being so quiet? What if people think I’m wierd? What if?” Literally the thoughts never end, it’s exhausting.
And simply telling me, “I’ll be fine, suck it up, who cares what they think, or have a drink” or get angry or upset at me, only makes me more anxious. And it’s totally screwed up to think anyone could get upset at you over something you have no control over.
Imagine you are standing at the edge of a 100 foot cliff, and the only way back down is going over the edge, and climbing down a rope latter with some of the steps broken or missing. That is the same intensity of fear I get in some social situations. Sometimes it is easier to just sit down where you are (where you feel comfortable), and not move.
I definitely feel the most comfortable at home; I call it my safe haven. I do go out, maybe once every 2 weeks. Each time is always a struggle, my initial reaction is to cancel plans as the anxiety starts to build due to negative anticipations. It’s frustrating because I love my friends and family, and I should feel the most comfortable around them but my anxiety usually hinders over my trust.
I once had an ex friend get so angry at me because “I could go out with complete strangers (on dates), but I couldn’t hang out with my girl”. Anxiety is a weird thing, it is totally F’ed up. Meeting with strangers felt so much easier because they knew nothing about me, I had an opportunity to only allow what I wanted them to know, when I wanted them to know it. I could put an abrupt end to things if the relationship lacked a connection. I cared less about what they thought. I was in control of those situations.
With my friends, I am an open book. They knew every raw detail. I cared so much about what they thought. I valued their opinions, perhaps too much. I’m not sure why, but I felt like I always had something to prove. My mindset was very damaging to my relationships. Only the strongest relationships were able to survive.
I knew I wanted to change. I needed to changed. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Therapy has really helped me gain back control, and is helping to change my way of thinking. I’m still a ‘work in progress’ but things are changing for the better. I also had to make some difficult decisions with ending some friendships. The purpose was to eliminate the people in my life that held me back, or no longer supported me or served me, grew with me, shared the same values or interests, able to understand me (or took the time to understand) or ride the highs and lows with me. Hardest, but best decision I ever made. Took a very heavy weight off my shoulder.
My journey to self-improvement began with the formulation of specific goals.
1) Decrease social anxiety and gain control
2) Build and sustain meaningful relationships
Then I came up specific tasks to complete each goal.
An example could be, decrease social anxiety by challenging catastrophic or distored thoughts, or slowly integrating different levels of exposure. You really have to be your own cheerleader when it comes to purposely exposing yourself to anxious situations. I’ve had to force myself, but each time always got easier, and I always ended up having a great time. I use reflection to remind myself of the positive experiences I had.
Before you jump into CBT or Exposure Therapy, I would advise that you talk with your doctor to develop a plan together that would work best for you. If it is decided that you would benefit from this type of therapy, you can either purchase a self-help workbook, or you can complete a plan under the care and supervision of a psychologist or trained therapist. I would advise the latter for more severe types of social anxieties or phobias, especially if they are causing significant distress.