What is social anxiety?
I think to some extend we all know what society anxiety is. More-so, I'm pretty certain that we've all experienced social anxiety at some point. If for some reason you haven't, errr who the fuck are you? And please teach me your diet, your morning routine and every single one of your life secrets so I can become you. I, on the other hand, am clearly not one of those genetic lottery winning assholes.
In my younger years, the feeling of social anxiety was described to me as simply being shyness. A shyness that I would get over one day. If somebody could tell me when that day is so I can induce myself into a coma until then, that would be swell.
I think however, it would be more accurate to describe social anxiety as a phobia. It's a phobia of social situations where you're constantly afraid you have done something embarrassing that people will judge you for or that you will do something that people will judge you for.
Like all phobias, it's completely irrational and thus can cause irrational responses whether they are voluntary or involuntary. In terms of the voluntary responses, it can cause people to cancel plans, avoid eye contact and in my case shutdown and not say anything at all. The involuntary responses are even greater though; blushing, sweating (my body's favourite), increased heart rate, nauseousness and even full blown panic attacks. The fear of the involuntary responses lead to the voluntary responses.
If you're anything like me though, you have real time conversations with yourself as the anxiety attacks are happening. But I understand that I'm a little odd in some respects so it might be difficult to picture what it's like to do that. So for your viewing pleasure, I present to you my thoughts when presented with meeting new people not too long ago.
A conversation between Dave & Dave
"Okay, you've been sat by yourself too long. People are going to think your a total loner unless you say something"
"What the fuck do even I say to start the conversation? Got to think of something funny, funny always works"
"Great, you're talking to someone, about time. Shit, what was their name? Too late to ask again. Good job moron, now you haven't listened to a single thing they've said because you can't remember their name"
"Am I making too much eye contact? Not enough eye contact? When was the last time you smiled during this conversation?" "What question can I ask them to keep this conversation going? Got to pretend you know something about what they're talking about so they think you're not boring"
"Right, they've asked me something. You know the answer to this, why are you pausing? Quick, keep your answer brief. Don't want them thinking you've got a massive ego. Wait, if your answer is too brief then they'll probably think you've got an even bigger ego. Why does confidence feel like arrogance when it comes from me?"
"Why do my thoughts keep switching between first, second and third person? DAVE THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR THIS, JUST LISTEN TO WHAT THEY'RE SAYING"
"Phew, I made it through that conversation, better go to the loo quickly to chill out before the next one. How did it go? Probably not well. I'm sure they're thinking I'm a bit of weirdo. Let's hope first impressions don't last forever or I'm fucked. Hopefully the next one goes better"
Having social anxiety feels like there's always another person, sat on my shoulder, whispering my worst thoughts to me. When he's not there nattering away, he's reaching in and shaking my heart and stomach, putting my body into an all out panic.
What's flaring up my social anxiety?
The above reenactment should give you somewhat of an idea as to what is making me feel socially anxious, but I feel as though that's only scratching the surface of things. It's one thing to see the results of something like anxiety but you never get the true story from the results, you have to dive in deeper.
Part of my motivations behind this blog were to start being honest with myself (and therefore you lovely people) about everything that's going on in my mind. How could I possibly resolve an issue I'm not being honest about?
As always, my reasons for why I feel this way come from my childhood. As a boy, I was ridiculed for things that I said and did. I would ask questions and get called dumb. I would try and tell jokes and nobody would laugh. I would tell people what I liked and they told me that what I liked wasn't cool. I'm sure we can all remember moments where something we said felt like it sucked all the life out of the room. That is how I remember my entire childhood.
When you're met by those kinds of responses, it changes who you are deep down to your core. The confident, whimsical little scamp became quiet and reserved. If you fear for the reactions from when you open your mouth, you tend not to open your mouth much anymore.
I'm sure you can see where this is going.
That restrained and self-contained child became a restrained and self-contained teenager, who became a restrained and self-contained adult.
These days, my go to response around people I'm not 100% confident around is to say nothing. I'll smile and laugh, but bring nothing to the table. I won't give people anything that I feel like they might latch onto as a reason to not like me. Sure, people don't not like me but I'm not exactly getting invited to dinner parties as the smiling mute. Just get one of the nodding dogs from the Churchill adverts and you've got about 95% of what I'd probably bring.
I'm just going to come out and say it, I think I'm really boring. I don't think I'm an interesting person and therefore I feel as if I can't bring anything to the table. To carry on the dinner party analogy (because who doesn't love to read about dinner party analogies), everybody has brought something along and I've hidden my dish somewhere because I think it's disgusting compared to everybody else's.
At the end of the day, all of this can be boiled down to self-esteem issues. My view of myself is far from positive and even further from healthy.
There's a part of me that knows this isn't true. I don't listen to that part of me, but that part of me does exist. Deep down I must know it because who writes a blog primarily dedicated to themselves if they don't think they have anything interesting to say?
Me, that's who.
How to become a better dinner guest?
I know, I know. I'm really stretching this metaphor as far as it could go. If I stretched in my actual life as hard as I'm stretching this metaphor, you'd probably see me doing gymnastics at the next olympics.
Now look, I'm going to premise this and say that I very clearly have not got all the answers of how to resolve social anxiety. I think that much is evident by the fact by I'm still going through the effects of it on a far too frequent basis. I'm just a guy that tries to be a student of mental health and has read an awful lot on the subject. I've probably spent more time reading about the subject than I have trying to improve my own mental health, but that's an issue for another blog.
With that in mind, take what I'm saying with a pinch of salt but hopefully still with a relatively open mind because there may be some useful nuggets in there for you.
To tackle the problem, we're going to have to break it down into two questions:
What can I do to prepare myself before it happens?
What can I do when I'm experiencing it?
What can I do to prepare myself before it happens?
First step is to always look inwards and figure out what is causing the anxiety in the first place. Without rehashing the intro of this blog too much, clearly I'm worried about what other people think of me. For you, it might be different. But if you're ever going to figure out how to get past it, you must dedicate some time to think about why you get anxious.
Once you've figured it out, it becomes a problem that you can solve through smaller steps.
I know that the part of me that is anxious is a scared younger version of myself still holding on to what people did to him. I need to show that boy that people aren't bad and they're not going to treat you the way that others did those many moons ago. That boy is never going to see that unless I I prove that point to him by surrounding him with good people and showing him that it's okay.
He needs to know that he's not made of glass and that his world isn't going the shatter if social situations don't get exactly according to plan. That can start at home.
Through meditation, I've learnt about equanimity, a state of being in which feelings and emotions can flow through you but where you don't get married to them. You slowly learn to accept that you are experiencing something, realise that it won't last forever and let it pass. Don't hold onto it. Don't reject it. Simply let it be.
Finally for me, if I'm worried that people are going to think I'm boring, then I need to figure out what not boring people do and start doing those kinds of things. I need to go live life, really live it and be present for it. Then I can share these stories and experiences with other people and become a version of myself that I don't view as boring.
What can I do when I'm experiencing it?
I get it, what good is doing all these things if you're still going to feel anxious and not know how to address it in the moment?
You know that meditation I talked about earlier? It can be applied in the moment itself as well. Something I've tried to do as of late, is if I can begin the feel the sensations on anxiety creeping in, I'll take myself away for just a moment, maybe to the toilet or the bar and take a few of those deep breathes to be in a more calm state like I am during meditation.
We can't think clearly when we are anxious. A reaction happens in your brain that makes it impossible. To get a little science like on you, the amygdala disables your frontal lobes (the parts of your brain that are used to plan, organise and control your responses), and then stimulates hypothalamus (which is responsible for initiating the fight-or-flight response). Basically, you become on high alert for danger because your brain thinks you are in danger and shuts down the bits that aren't useful to solve the immediate threat.
When this happens, we need to bring our body out of this state if we want the anxiety to go away. Taking deep breathes helps to ground you and stop the blood flow to the areas of your brain responsible for putting you in that state.
Recognising the symptoms early will make it easier to respond to as your brain won't have completely taken over. Practice makes perfect. Try taking five deep breathes in and out right now and see how it affects you. Do it.
You feel better calmer right? Put this tip in your back pocket for later, it might come in useful.
Let's finish off with some hope
Hope. Not really a word I'm accustom to using but let's try and put it to good use because although it might not appear that way, I am hopeful for myself on this topic.
While I know that I'm going to experience social anxiety at some point in the future, I'm not afraid of it. I'm more afraid of being alone and boring than I am fearful of my anxiety. I know that doesn't really sound hopeful but to me that's a huge step in the right direction.
So I'm going to put myself out there, I'm going to try and become a more interesting person and I'm going to make some more god damn friends. The next time we see each other, I'll be a little better than I was before and start becoming a version of myself that I'm proud you. I hope you are all able to do the same.
Until we speak again, keep hanging in there.