My Experience with Social Anxiety
I’ve always been baffled by people who have big problems but seem to be in complete denial about them. Why wouldn’t someone simply want to address their issue, tackle it, solve it, and move on with their lives in a bigger and better way? But lemme tell ya, it’s easy to think this way while looking in from the outside. It wasn’t until I found myself on the inside, looking outwards, that I realized how much more complicated addressing personal problems are when you are the one at the epicenter.
In 2013, I realized I had social anxiety.
First off, what exactly is social anxiety?
Let’s get something straight. It’s very common for people to have a range of discomfort in social settings. Not everyone is super outgoing and at ease at parties, making presentations, or meeting new people.
Compared to general nervousness in social scenarios, social anxiety, at its core, stems from the persistent and irrational fear of being judged and being seen in a negative light by others, which ultimately leads to avoidance of normal life activities like work, school, and any type of social gathering.
It can feel confusing because you might operate normally in your day to day life, but when it comes to social situations, anxiety takes over and interferes with interactions with others, which left untreated, can have a snowball effect over time.
Common scenarios where social anxiety happens:
Being introduced to other people
Being the center of attention
Being watched while doing something
Meeting people of authority
Going around the room (or table) in a circle and having to say something
Public speaking and presentations
Relationships, whether friendship or romantic
Speaking in public
Going to parties
Some signs of social anxiety are:
Fear of situations in which you may be judged
Worrying about embarrassing yourself
Intense fear of interacting or talking with strangers
Fear that others will notice that you look anxious
Avoiding doing things or speaking to people out of fear of embarrassment
Avoiding situations where you might be the center of attention
Having anxiety in anticipation of a feared activity or event
Spending time after a social situation analyzing your performance and identifying flaws in your interactions
Expecting the worst possible consequences from a negative experience during a social situation
It’s important to note that social anxiety can cause many physical reactions as well, like a pounding heart, face/neck/chest turning red, excessive sweating, dry mouth, shaking hands, and muscle twitches.
Regardless of which specific scenario brings on the symptoms, constant anxiety that leads to avoidance of normal activities is the backbone of social anxiety.
I can’t tell you the exact moment in my life when my social anxiety began. Looking back now, there were sprinklings of it here and there: I remember being in chorus in eighth grade, and out of nowhere, getting really sweaty during the middle of a performance. I remember when I lived in France my junior year of high school, I became increasingly nervous about answering questions in class in French. I would go over what I would say in my head word for word before offering to raise my hand. In college, I dreaded any kind of presentation in front of my classmates, and started to experience the physical manifestations of my anxiety more often, though I was completely unaware of my anxiety at the time.
Once in college, I met up with a cute boy to get some froyo. It was a weekend evening, so there was a long line, which meant that the cute boy and I were “trapped”. I say trapped because that was another important element to my anxiety. Anytime I felt that I was stuck in a situation, it created a breeding ground for my anxiety. In this specific scenario, I was already feeling a little nervous around this cute boy, and since we were stuck in a long line, I suddenly felt my body and face start to get a hot. As soon as I felt the heat creeping up my neck, and a light sweat break out across my forehead, I panicked, not wanting him to see what was going on. So, I pretended to get an important phone call, I walked out of the froyo store, leaving the cute boy in line, and faked talking on the phone for a few minutes while I felt my body cool down.
As time went on, I realized that any kind of activity where I was the center of attention, even if it was just me with one other person, had the potential to bring on anxiety that lead to the physical manifestation of my anxiety: facial sweating. Later I learned that visible symptoms, like sweating or shaking, make your anxiety obvious to those around you, which in turn become an additional focus of fear, causing and endless cycle.
Here’s what would happen to me specifically in an anxiety-producing scenario:
If I knew a situation was approaching that could trigger anxiety, I would start to feel anxious about it. Even if it was a few days away.
At the event/gathering/social situation, even though initially my mind felt calm and rational, I would feel my body start to get hot. It was as if I didn’t have control over my own body.
As I felt myself start to physically heat up, I would start to internally panic.
This led to me getting even hotter, my neck and chest getting red, and my face starting to sweat.
It was a chain reaction beyond my control: anxiety led to getting hot, which led to panic, which led to getting even hotter and sweatier, which led to more panic until I could figure out a way to escape the situation.
Once I became aware of this process, I began to have anxiety about it happening in upcoming scenarios in my life. It was no longer just present situations that gave me anxiety, but the anticipation of future situations too: everything from meeting new people, to interviews, meetings at work, and even getting my hair cut. My mind even sped forward to getting married one day. I thought, how the hell am I going to walk down the aisle, all eyes on me, without breaking out into a full blown waterfall of sweat?!
Though I can’t necessarily pin point when my social anxiety started, I can remember when it began to snowball. It was 2012 when my boyfriend at the time and I moved from Los Angeles to Boston. I started to work as a graphic designer at a start up that was extremely demanding and beyond stressful. Since the company was brand new and we had a very small team, we would have weekly meetings where we would update each other about the projects that we were each working on. I would dread this day more than any other knowing that I had to speak in front of my colleagues. I would think about it all day with knots in my stomach. I would prep for the meeting by making sure I had a cold water bottle to hold in my hands, and subtly press it against my wrists, to help cool me down. And when it came time to talk, as my heart raced and my face got hot, I would speed through my bulleted items as quickly as possible in order to move on to the next person, praying that no one saw how nervous I was.
Things really took a turn for me when the start up I worked for was part of a local event showcasing Boston businesses. We arrived early to the space with some of our interns, and immediately, I could feel the anxiety creeping in. The event space felt hot. The air was stagnant. I immediately start to feel the heat rise up my neck. “Doesn’t it feel hot in here?!” I asked the interns. They both shook their heads no- great. It was just me. We had a little bit of time until the attendees arrived, so I walked over to the beverage area to do my “hold a cold drink trick” but the soda they handed me felt like room temperature. Damn, that trick ain’t gunna work this time. My internal panic feeling grew louder and my body grew hotter. My only place to escape to was the bathroom. I went inside, took a moment for myself, and ran my hands under the cold water. Just breathe, I told myself.
I walked out of the bathroom and back towards to the booth we had set up. People started to arrive and meander over to our station to hear about our company. My anxiety increased as I felt my face and body get sweaty. I felt trapped behind our booth, unable to escape as I needed to talk to these strangers about our company and make a good impression. It was a chain reaction that I could not control; it felt terrible. I wanted to cry. For the duration of the event, I left the booth multiple times to escape to the bathroom to try to calm down, and to try to also cool down. I somehow made it through, but must have looked like a crazy person leaving every few minutes to go to the bathroom.
That was the first time I had ever experienced anything of that intensity. After that, my anxiety surrounding anything social began to grow. Unfortunately for me, the company I worked for hosted a good amount of social events. Time and time again at these events, I found my anxiety manifesting itself through facial sweating, leading to me awkwardly cutting conversations short in order to “escape”.
I’ll never forget one time, we had an event, and the building’s lobby buzzer wasn’t working. My boss apologetically asked me if I could stay in the lobby for about twenty minutes to open the door for people attending. I was so relieved. She thought that it sucked for me to have to leave the party and sit downstairs alone for a little bit, but instead, I was doing cartwheels inside because I got to run away from the very thing that was giving me anxiety.
I had yet to identify what I was going through as a deeper problem. Instead, I was looking at it topically. At the time, the problem that I identified was my facial sweating. So one day, I went on Amazon, and I found what seemed to be the holy grail of antiperspirant products: Sweat Block. Described as clinical strength, the product came in towelettes that were meant to be used on the armpits and would prevent sweating for up to a week. EUREKA! I Amazon Primed that shiz ASAP to my apartment to test it out.
The first time I used Sweat Block, I dabbed it onto my face before bed as it was meant to be used at night. Rather quickly, I felt a pretty uncomfortable burning sensation on my skin, and in the morning, my face was a little red and swollen. That night, the company I worked for had a social event, and sure enough, as I started talking to people, I felt my body heat up, but lo and behold… zero sweat from my face. My face definitely got hot, but there was no perspiration. Sweat Block had worked! I couldn’t believe that I found a “solution”. Who cares that it caused physical pain on my delicate face skin?! No sweat, no problem!
Fast-forward a months to when I was visiting my mom in New York City. We were out to dinner at a Turkish restaurant updating each other on our lives. Halfway through the meal, as I was telling her details of my job and how much I hated the social events we hosted, I started crying out of nowhere. I told her how I got so nervous talking to people, and eventually I told her about the Sweat Block that I put on my face. Fortunately I have the best and most caring mom in the world. She listened and gently suggested that the problem may be a bit larger than just sweat and that I may want to consider seeking out the help of therapist. After talking about it some more, I realized that that was the right step to take. I was finally being honest with myself.
With some help for my mom, I started to do some research on psychiatrists in the Boston area that focused on CBT. CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps with a range of problems (like anxiety, depression, eating disorders) by focusing on changing negative behaviors and thoughts. After a bit of searching, I found Dr. Jonathan Goldberg at the Life Changes Group in Cambridge. I wrote him an email, we scheduled a 10 minute intro call, and after we spoke, I felt this huge weight lift off my chest. I felt relieved that there was someone who could help me. I scheduled my first appointment with Dr. Goldberg for the following week.
Starting in 2013, I saw Dr. Goldberg for about a year and without a doubt he changed my life. Through our hour-long weekly meetings and through CBT, I learned that there is no cure for anxiety, but instead, we have to learn how to manage anxiety. As Dr Goldberg describes,
“I encourage my patients to change their relationship with anxiety. Rather than focus on curing anxiety, we work toward accepting that, sometimes, we will feel anxious. Everyone does. And when that moment comes, the challenge is to control the negative thoughts and behaviors that accompany anxiety. As I am fond of saying, anxiety is not your enemy. It is a hard-wired response that everyone experiences. Worry and avoidance are the enemies! The goal is to treat anxiety like an unwanted party-crasher. An in-law. An acquaintance that we can uncomfortably tolerate for the time that they’re with us. To say to anxiety, “I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but we’re going to have to live with each other.” And while anxiety is visiting, we need to develop better tools for managing the discomfort it creates.”
Fast forward to today, my mind is truly blown when I see how far I’ve come. I used to be paralyzed at the thought of speaking in front of a few people, and now I lead SoulCycle classes everyday with up to sixty people in each class. But here’s the thing- my anxiety in general has absolutely decreased, but it hasn’t gone away. I sometimes still get super nervous before class. I get anxious about doing interviews. I still have trouble with being put on the spot, or having all eyes on me. Occasionally I’ll show up at events and out of nowhere, heat up and start sweating. Sometimes I’m great at talking to strangers, and other times I clam up and have no idea what to say.
I’ve come to understand that my anxiety will always be there, and sometimes it will feel stronger on some days than others, but the difference now is that I no longer let the fear of my anxiety control my life.
I was recently digging through old files and papers, and found this tips and techniques for managing social anxiety sheet that I wanted to share with you as there are actionable items here that you can start practicing today:
Technique: Practice relaxation strategies
Description: Take 10-15 minutes before a presentation or anxiety-producing event to engage in diaphragmatic breathing and visual imagery.
Anticipated Result: These exercises are known to reduce the length of the fight/flight response by returning the body back to homeostasis.
Technique: Admit nervousness
Description: Tell your audience, whoever they are, that you are feeling nervous- you do not need to go into detail.
Anticipated Result: Removes the pressure to appear calm and organized throughout the entire discussion/presentation, and in doing so, relaxes the body and mind.
Technique: Redefine your audience
Description: This is the typical “imagine your boss in his underwear” scenario. Redefine the audience by remembering that these are just people in the room, like yourself, and they do not have any special powers or abilities to perceive anxiety.
Anticipated Result: By remembering that your audience is just like you, you remove the sense of judgment and evaluation that is triggered by feeling like you’re in the presence of authority. Also, you’re reminding yourself that they cannot “sniff-out” your anxiety.
Technique: Envision a positive outcome
Description: Picture the positive outcome of this event- the laughter, the clapping, the “job well done.” Picture the scene in as vivid detail as possible using your imagination.
Anticipated Result: By picturing a positive outcome you are effectively broadening the number of potential scenarios considered beyond one. People with social anxiety generally only picture a negative conclusion, which accounts for activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Technique: Reinterpret your symptoms
Description: Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and nothing else.
Anticipated Result: By reinterpreting your symptoms as having a biological basis, you’re helping to normalize the experience.
Technique: Pause and reflect when speaking
Description: When looking for words, do not rush to say anything, but instead pause and reflect on what you want to say. You can go several seconds without producing any verbal material and not appear disorganized. Many people perceive this as being “thoughtful.”
Anticipated Result: By taking the emphasis off of verbal production, you can begin to slow down your thought process and envision more carefully what you want to communicate. Since racing thoughts are associated with sympathetic nervous system activity, sometimes we need to consciously slow down.
Technique: Have something small in your hands
Description: Always keep something small in your pockets to hold onto while speaking, like a coin, paperclip, or pen.
Anticipated Result: Having a small object in your hands can serve as a lightening rod for negative energy and anxiety.
Technique: Get to places early
Description: Get to the designated speaking/social environment as early as possible.
Anticipated Result: Arriving at a location early allows you to “feel it out,” become comfortable with the environment and plan where you’ll stand/sit, and where people will be in relation to you.
Technique: Pump yourself up
Description: Read an inspiring story, recall a successful moment for the past, or listen to uplifting music. Prepare these things in advance and listen/think/read them ten minutes before an event.
Anticipated Result: Since there are limits to what we can imagine, having inspiring movies, books, or music to connect with help to reinforce confidence in ones’ abilities and the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Technique: Be over-prepared and practice, practice, practice
Description: If you’re preparing for public speaking, be sure you know what you’re going to say before you begin speaking. Even if you’re using cue cards, memorizing some of your talk is helpful for prompting you if you get off course. Practice in front of a mirror, a friend, and even record yourself so you can listen back.
Anticipated Result: Preparation and exposure are the antidotes for anxiety. By practicing your talk and being prepared you are reducing the likelihood of negative thoughts about the outcome.
Technique: Embrace your fate
Description: Learn to accept that this is something you are going to do, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it.
Anticipated Result: By embracing your fate, you are effectively reducing the desire to engage in avoidance-based behavior and coming to terms with the event, whatever it is, as a very manageable and non life-threatening moment in time. Nothing more.
Technique: Accept rather than fight your symptoms
Description: Learn to accept that you will blush or stammer when talking to people. Become familiar with these symptoms and treat them as though they’re old friends rather than enemies. Tell yourself “it’s ok” if you have them and remind yourself that everyone experiences similar symptoms at some point in their lives.
Anticipated Result: Taking negativity out of your symptoms is difficult since they feel uncomfortable, but it does help you relax and be “okay” when they appear. In contrast, resistance to these symptoms actually increase their duration and your focus on them while they are active.
Technique: Develop mantras or rational counter statements to be repeated before exposures
Description: Repeat to yourself several positive and rational statements that you have developed prior to significant events such as “I can do this,” “anxiety is not a weakness,” or “I will survive and be ok no matter what happens.”
Anticipated Result: These statements are meant to reduce the likelihood of sympathetic nervous system activity because they interpret the exposure event as less threatening. They also provide a balance to the negative statements that generally dominate thinking during these times.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read about my struggles and triumphs with social anxiety! If you think you may have social anxiety, hopefully some of these tips and techniques are actionable items that you can start practicing in your daily life. I really recommend also seeking out the help of a psychiatrist specializing in CBT as it has the potential to change your life.
I would love to continue the discussion about social anxiety and answer any specific questions that you may have. Feel free leave question in the comments below or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My blog post next week will cover your questions anonymously!
photos by Rehes for Adidas Women x Reigning Champ