Our ambassador Leah has been brave enough to share her experience with social anxiety. You can read her story here:
‘What should I say?’
‘Did I actually say that? Why did I say that?’
‘I can’t say that. They’ll think…’
‘What are they thinking?’
‘They secretly hate me.’
*Dwells on small awkward moment for 2 weeks straight. *
Social anxiety can be a really frustrating one. You know you want to talk to people, but you’ve got these automatic thoughts playing on repeat anytime you enter or leave a social interaction. This is how an interaction with anyone would have typically went when I was struggling with social anxiety.
Growing up, I was quite the social butterfly – never sticking to only one friendship group. I was never afraid of putting myself out there and talking to different people. I liked to be a part of a variety of different groups – getting involved in youth clubs and trying my hand at a variety of extra-curricular activities.
Fast-forward to a period in my life of experiencing high-levels of anxiety; feeling fearful of any social situation. I found myself in a negative cycle of avoiding social situations, withdrawing myself, and relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol.
Below is some of what I was experiencing with social anxiety, which I want to share for others to be able to recognise and relate to.
· Avoiding social events and cancelling them at the last-minute: giving me short-term relief, but isolating myself from people.
· Social situations with alcohol involved wouldn’t feel as daunting after a few drinks, but then I’d find myself only feeling comfortable in social settings were alcohol was involved.
· Over-personalisation: convincing myself that what someone said or did, why they aren’t talking or their ‘bad mood’ is because of me. Thinking about how people are judging me, and creating a narrative in my own head that ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m too annoying’, ‘they probably don’t like me.’
· Withdrawal in social settings: relying on things like scrolling on my phone as a safety behaviour to feel more comfortable, closing myself off as a result. Using the bathroom as an escape route (*even when you don’t actually need to pee*)
· Intense awareness of your body and behaviour: what way am I standing? How do I look? Feeling like people are looking at what you’re doing when they aren’t, and starting to feel a panic arise (*heating up, increased heartbeat, lump in throat, dry mouth, shaky hands*)
· Staying quiet instead of asking for something that I need.
· Rehearsing what I would say over and over again before a conversation, and then dwelling on the conversation afterwards.
Ways that I’ve coped with and over-come social anxiety:
· CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) tools: setting myself small challenges at a time and building them up to the bigger ones that social anxiety would’ve made me fear. For example, starting a conversation with one person to going to a social event with more people. Taking it step-by-step and being consistent with it is important.
· Mindfully listening and engaging in a conversation – switching the focus from yself and thoughts like ‘what am I going to say next?’ onto the other person and what they are telling you. Focusing on the person and the present moment allows the conversation to flow more, and I’ve found then I don’t need to think about what to say/do because it will come naturally.
· Instead of rehearsing how a conversation may go before hand, doing things like breathing exercises to ground me in the present moment and repeating positive affirmations like ‘I am safe’, ‘I am secure’, and ‘I am able to cope with this.’
· Something that I read in Vex King’s book ‘Good vibes, good life’ is instead of going away from a social situation and focusing on thoughts like ‘what did they think of me/do they like me?, getting into a habit of switching the perspective and asking myself ‘do I like them? are they my kind of people? is this person, job etc.for me?’
· Realising that people don’t think about what I say or do as much I think they do, and that what they do think is none of my business! We can’t control or change other people’s views and opinions of us, we can instead focus on how we view ourselves.
Underlying my social anxiety has been an extreme lack of self-confidence, way too much self-doubt and worry about what other people are thinking. Hiding parts of myself to be ‘accepted’ by others and to ‘fit in’ to different cliques; people-pleasing, not setting boundaries, and attaching myself and my happiness externally to things like relationships. If you’re struggling with social anxiety, I would recommend trying to understand it more through therapy. From talking about mine in therapy, I’ve been able to notice similar patterns that come up, identify triggers and talk about underlying causes.