This post was a difficult one for me to write, but in 2015 I have vowed to open up more. I hope it helps anyone who’s dealt with or is dealing with social anxiety, or for anyone who feels like they’re alone in the way they feel.
I’ve always preferred staying in to going out, I’ve always had a few close friends than a big group of friends, and I’ve always steered the conversation more towards the other person to keep the attention away from myself. I’m at my most introverted when I’m at home on a Saturday night, watching YouTube videos with a bag of popcorn the side of my head, in my onesie and thinking, “I’m so glad I’m not out right now.”
But being an introvert does have its downsides. Mind blanks and awkward silences are my worst nightmare, and socialising really feels like a struggle sometimes. I’ll have the classic internal monologue with myself, wishing I was more of a social person, and feeling guilty that I’m not this bright, bubbly person who pretends that she isn’t struggling with eye contact and making small talk. Most of the time, I find that being an introvert is stressful and can take its toll on your confidence.
Some examples where I’ve felt overwhelming anxiety in the past few years:
– being introduced to someone new
– seeing someone I haven’t seen in ages while out shopping
– having to talk about myself and what I do, whether that’s in a work or social situation
– at festivals, believe it or not
– walking into an exercise class where I’m running 2 minutes late and the class has already started.
Though I’ve never experienced a full-blown panic attack, I have suffered with social anxiety since I was young. Classically, things always seemed much worse at night, so I remember lots of sleepless nights, palpitations and uncontrollable tears. My first memory of feeling sheer panic and worry was when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I was in my last few years of primary school. Very quickly, I began to fear not getting picked up from school. It sounds absolutely ridiculous now, but it was a very real fear for me at the time. I would make up excuses to my parents so I wouldn’t have to go to school and feel the dread. Whilst the other kids would long for “home time”, I still remember the dread of seeing the classroom clock knocking to 3.30pm, and no one being there to come and collect me. Mum knew that this scared me, so of course she was always there to pick me up. One day though, I realised she wasn’t there as I walked further and further past the line of cars. She was running late and arrived 20 minutes later to find me in a mess of tears, my eyes stinging with pain. She took me home, and I’ll never forget her rocking me back and forth, apologising over and over and rubbing my back to calm me down.
Mum has been my rock through my whole life, and having suffered with panic attacks and anxiety herself, she’s one of the only people I can be entirely honest with and I know she’ll just get it. Without her, I don’t know how I would’ve coped with my anxiety, and who knows what kind of person I would’ve been today. As my episodes of panic continued, she tried homeopathy with me to see if that would help my anxiety. I remember her boss, a pharmacist, coming to the house to ask me lots of questions to figure out which homeopathic medicine would be best for me - questions like, “Do you prefer sweet or savoury food?”. I was given a remedy called Pulsatilla - small, white tablets that I had to leave melt on my tongue. Funnily enough, researching the tablet now, Pulsatilla is deemed to be suitable for “blonde, blue-eyed females of a mild, shy and tearful disposition.” Everything except for the eye colour is completely true! Whether it was a placebo or not, I started to feel calmer within just a couple of weeks, and that feeling of dread began to subside.
My anxiety didn’t come back again for years after that. High school and college were full of happy memories, with my two best friends keeping me company and making me laugh every day for 5 years. Everything felt easy and so, so happy. Then I went to Uni, and there was the classic first week of mixed emotions, where I missed home and cried every night, and felt truly childish for it. But once I’d gotten over that, I loved every moment of Uni life. Then I was faced with a presentation as one of my final year assignments that the anxiety returned. Whilst all of my other classmates seemed very level-headed about the upcoming presentation (I kept asking my closest friends, “So you’re not dreading it?” to which they would say, “Not really”, and almost see it as a nuisance than a thing to fear), I would be left feeling complete terror, and questioning why they didn’t feel the same way I did. In the end, I had to ask my tutor if I could deliver the presentation in private.
Thankfully, he was very understanding and arranged a time when it would be just him that I could present to. Though this eased me, I remember that my voice was still shaking, I read my presentation word-to-word and I didn’t take my eyes off the paper in front of me the entire time. When I finally set my paper back down, I felt a slight relief, but most of all I felt like a failure. After I finished my “presentation”, my tutor shared with me his own battles with anxiety over the years, recommended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which helped him immensely, and urged me to not let it ruin my life. If you had known my tutor, you would never in a million years have thought that he suffered with anxiety in any way. He was the bubbliest, loudest teacher in the department, and everyone wanted to be in his classes. If I could go back and record that last 10 minutes of conversation with him, I absolutely would, because he had me in tears.
I was very lucky that I had a tutor who knew what I was going through, but sadly I know that a lot of teachers in the department wouldn’t have been so understanding. Mental health issues are still very much misunderstood and brushed off by so many people. Generally, people think that you’re being dramatic, or overreacting to a situation.
When I started my job in marketing, I was, again, very lucky to be eased into meetings with clients. After two years of practise, I feel a lot more comfortable speaking to clients, but it definitely isn’t a walk in the park for me. Then, a year ago, I was faced with my worst nightmare situation. I was asked by my boss to deliver social media training to one of our clients - a two-hour training session in front of 10 people. It was a complete “fight or flight” situation, but I chose to fight. I wrote up lengthy notes for each slide, so that if I did have a mind-blank I could refer back to them, and I even planned an activity. I walked into that scary board room with sweaty palms, but with my chin up and shoulders back. For those two hours, I had a complete outer body experience. It didn’t feel like me talking to these people, and it didn’t feel like me scrawling up social media tips on the whiteboard. To me, it was a complete fluke, and I don’t know whether I could do it again, but I did it. That day, I walked out feeling like I had achieved something.
I’ve found that with every experience, things get a little bit easier as I learn how I prefer to deal with things. But then, a completely non-intimidating situation crops up, and I can’t figure out how to deal with it. This New Year’s Eve, a few of my friends who I haven’t seen in a long time asked if I was coming out for drinks in the local village. This should’ve been a situation that I could handle, but for some reason, I couldn’t go through with it. I ended up staying in with my family, which didn’t make things that much better as I couldn’t bear what they thought of me - a 25-year-old-girl who’s staying in with her mum, dad, aunty and uncle instead of out with her friends. I should know that they’re not thinking like that, but sometimes it’s difficult to see past your own thoughts.
I’ve learnt so much in all these experiences, and I’ve also learnt that there are more introverts and social anxiety sufferers who are feeling the exact same way that I feel. Social anxiety just can’t be explained sometimes, but you’ll know when it strikes you. There are certain situations that I justcan’t handle, and I can’t even put a reason on why. Most of the time it’s nerves of people judging me, judging what I’m saying, my mannerisms, all the way along to what I “do” for a job and in my life, even though it’s not that much different to theirs most of the time.
It’s still such a taboo topic, but it’s 2015 and there are still people I’ve met who don’t really understand anxiety. Though I still doubt myself in social situations, and fear that the worst will happen, I feel like it’s getting a little bit easier, and I’m learning how to deal with it. The bad days aren’t as bad, and the good days are getting better, and that’s all because of the amazing support from my family and friends.