By Lauren Chassebi
I don’t think I’ve always had social anxiety. I mean, when I was a child I don’t remember ever having experienced it. I was one of the rowdy kids. That little girl constantly trying to be at the centre of everything. The kid who was always most likely to volunteer to go on stage as magician’s assistant.
It was only in later years that I really started to notice my aversion to spending too long in public spaces. My dislike for people who I didn’t know talking directly to me and my inability to hold eye contact with them without my face twitching. The little twists of dread I’d get in my stomach when walking into a crowded shopping centre or having to squeeze my way into a loaded up train carriage. The panic attacks which led to intense loss of breath and blurred vision, followed by hot flushes and tears, shaking and tingling.
Slowly, since my diagnosis, I’ve been learning how to control my social anxiety. It’s not something which I allow to impact me as much as I used to. Of course, as with any mental illness, I still have days where it consumes me. Where it feels like as much as I push against it and fight it, it’s always going to be there, hanging over me and blocking me away from my full potential. But much more frequently than that now, I have days where I know I can beat it. I’ll be able to leave the house and I won’t feel anxious at all, or, I’ll feel the nervous swells but I’ll feel the fear and do it anyway.
One thing I’ve learnt is that every person is different and so your coping mechanisms are going to be different too. You need to find the ones that will work for you, but I promise you will.
The method which works best for me is often referred to as ‘relabelling’. It’s a way of trying to fool your brain into thinking that you’re not really anxious at all. Telling your brain that what you’re feeling is actually excitement and not anxiety can sometimes help to alleviate systems. Of course, this method doesn’t always work. This is my go-to for moments when I start to feel anxious before going out to meet friends or to an event. It helps you to put that first foot out of the door, and once you’ve done that you’re already half way there.
Another similar technique I find helpful is rationalisation. I’m always getting stuck in my own head and imaging the worst possible scenarios. If I’ve got to go out to meet friends, I’ll overthink until I’ve convinced myself that everything that could possibly go wrong is going to. ‘Do they even like me?’ ‘Do they want me there?’ ‘What if there are awkward silences?’ What if they notice my nervous twitch?’
These things aren’t going to happen. But if you overthink and try to convince yourself that they are, your anxiety is going to intensify. So, instead of visualising the worst possible outcomes, try to visualise the best. If you tell yourself that it’s going to be great and you’re going to have a fantastic time, chances are you will.
These two methods are best for easing anxiety in the build up to events and social gatherings. What can be harder sometimes, is stopping these anxious feelings in the moment. I know as well as anyone that no matter what your headspace is like before putting yourself into those situations, it can flip in an instant. It is managing social anxiety under pressure that can be tough.
One of best and simplest things that you can do is breathe. Find a a thought to focus on that calms you and try not to get stuck inside your own head. Having something external to focus on is helpful too. For me, I fiddle with the rings on my fingers and just focus on twisting them. It gives me something that I’m in control of to focus my mind on and takes my attention away from my surroundings. The most important thing is to remind yourself that you’re going to be okay. You’re in no danger. You’ve got this.
Social anxiety is hard to deal with because it’s unpredictable and changes in every situation. Some days it hides away inside you and you almost feel like it’s gone completely, only for it to rear its ugly head again the next day and cast a shadow over you. It can feel like you’re not in control of yourself or your own feelings, but you are. You can learn to live with it. You can even beat it. The first step is teaching yourself that it does not define you and you’re going to be okay, with or without it.