Social Anxiety – The Physical Stuff

I was fourteen when it started… The blushing. The first physical symptom of social anxiety. I say first, but there were probably more. I just couldn’t hide this one.

Normally at school, if a teacher drew attention my way I’d freeze and be unable to speak, (classic Claire). However, on this occasion, when Mr Grant of Chemistry class called my name, I didn’t freeze, in fact, it was quite the opposite. I felt hot, uncomfortably hot. “Claire!” He boomed across the classroom. “Is ice made up of water or ice particles?” I knew the answer, but my jaw was wired shut and I felt an implosion somewhere deep inside my body. Think.. my own personal volcano! It started in my stomach, a rising tide of heat and within seconds the wave crashed across my face. My cheeks burned from the intensity and I cringed as it spread to my ears. What the f**k was happening?
“Oh, she’s gone red!” Mr Grant chirped, not in a cruel way, maybe he thought it would break the tension. Unfortunately, his words re-ignited the fuse and another scorching wave hit. The whole room was now staring at me, analysing every inch of my crimson face. I wanted to die.

The aftermath

To say that I was traumatised by this incident was an understatement. Most kids would’ve brushed it off as being a little embarrassing, one that probably wouldn’t happen again. I however obsessed about every detail. How I must’ve looked, what Mr Grant must’ve thought, let alone my peers. Why did it happen? What would I do if it happened again? How could I make it stop? Naturally, I didn’t tell a soul and kept all of this to myself. The fewer people who knew that I was a freak, the better.

Knowing what I now know about anxiety, I despair at the plans this young girl made. My obsession and fears turned a single occurrence into a full-blown pandemic. ANY TIME that a person said my name (whether that be teacher or friend) I would blush. Blushing became my biggest torture, I was a slave to my cheeks.
This went on for about sixth months, during which I tried the following to combat it:

  • Holding my breath – I thought that starving my brain of oxygen would reduce the blood flow.
  • An elastic band – as in snapping it against my wrist if I thought I was about to blush. No, it didn’t work. Yes, it hurt.
  • Leaving class to use the toilet multiple times a lesson – to this day, I’m not sure how I passed any of the science exams, seeing as I spent most of my time elsewhere.
  • Using green concealer on my cheeks – green cancels out red supposedly. It also made me look like a witch!

It was only when it started to happen at home that my mum stepped in and asked if everything was ok. I broke down and explained what’d been happening. She took me to the doctors the next day, who immediately prescribed Propranolol (more on this later). God knows why he didn’t pick up on the bigger problem… maybe he just hoped it was puberty. As we all did.

Blushing is a physical symptom of social anxiety and also of panic disorder. Other symptoms can include:

  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Tremors (shaking hands)
  • Twitching
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Needing to urinate frequently
  • Muscle tension
  • Full blown panic attacks (which I eventually worked my way up to)!

That’s quite the list, all of which I’ve experienced. Not pleasant.

How to deal with the physical symptoms

People often say to me “I just want the X symptom to stop, how can I do that?” I sympathise massively because I felt the same back in the early days. I thought if I could just get the blushing under control then everything would be ok. (Like how I thought blonde hair would make me popular and Xena Warrior Princess was a totally achievable career choice).
However, just as the blushing calmed down, the tremors and sweating started. Then came the constant nausea and stomach cramps.
Over the course of nine years, I went through every symptom on the list and more, until I had my infamous first panic attack and nervous breakdown.

Why? Why couldn’t I get them under control? Allow me to say this very clearly…. BECAUSE THE PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS ARE AN INDICATOR OF WHAT IS GOING ON INSIDE YOUR BRAIN!!

Like any illness or disorder, the external symptoms are a sign of the problem on the inside. Think chicken pox… the pox only appear when we’ve been infected for a while. Or a bad cold, all that snot and coughing is your body’s way of getting rid of the virus inside.

So before we move any further, it’s CRUCIAL that you accept the bigger picture. In fact, go and find a mirror (and some privacy), look yourself in the eye and say out loud “I’m not well. This is my body’s way of telling me there’s a problem. It’s trying to help me. I need to stop punishing it with ignorance and anger.”

How to deal with symptoms, part 2

Ok, now we’ve accepted the problem. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Go and see your doctor. Even if you’ve been before. Make another appointment and go into it with this new attitude. Write down your physical symptoms on a piece of paper… then write down your mental/emotional symptoms, such as “can’t stop worrying” or “always on edge.” Hand this to your doctor during the course of the appointment and explain that you’d like to deal with the underlying issue.
  • READ! As much as you can. Knowledge really is power in the fight against mental illness and the more that you know about your condition the better. You’d be surprised how empowering it is. Websites I would recommend include: The Anxiety Coach and MQ Mental Health and the books to read are A Beginners Guide to Being Mental, by Natasha Devon, The Anxiety Solution, by Chloe Brotheridge and How To Survive the End of the World, (When it’s in Your Head), by Aaron Gillies. Oh… & my book We’re All Mad Here by Claire Eastham.
  • Relax the brain – To get relief from the physical symptoms, we need to communicate that everything is ok and being dealt with. Most of the above symptoms are caused by the ‘fight or flight’ response, (click here for more info), the brain’s defense system that keeps us safe. To stop the symptoms we need to switch this off. How? Aromatherapy is good and cheap too. Find a scent that you find relaxing, Jasmine is good, so is Rose, Frankincense, and Ylang-ylang. Only use it when you’re feeling distressed. Put a little on a tissue or cover one nostril and sniff it straight from the bottle. While you’re doing this say (or think) “it’s ok, I’m safe.” In time the brain will start associating this scent with ‘safety.’ Other options are hypnotherapy and breathing exercises, (click HERE for my video).
  • Call them out with humour – 9/10 times trying to hide or suppress symptoms will only intensify them. You can’t force yourself to ‘not blush’ or sweat! In contrast, accepting them will cut their lifespan in half. If you feel self-conscious, humour is a great way to take the sting out. E.g. “Sorry I’m blushing, I think it’s stress, I’m burning up!” Or “Oh bugger, I think I had too much coffee this morning, my hands are shaking.” This approach also gives you more control.
  • Be aware of the thought cycle – I used to think, “I’m going to blush and humiliate myself!” The irony being I was embarrassed about being embarrassed, which in panic disorder terms is “fear of fear” or a “fear of the symptoms.” This leads to a vicious cycle that doesn’t go anywhere. To break the cycle, I would recommend using a CBT thought chart. To unearth the troubling thought and balance it. I won’t go into this now due to word count reasons, but do let me know if you’d like me to write about this exercise in more detail.
  • Exercise – Most of the physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by adrenaline (remember ‘fight or flight?’) Exercise is a great way to help it dissipate and leave the body.
  • Medication – Finally, medication such as Propranolol (a Beta Blocker) can help to significantly reduce physical symptoms by slowing the heart rate (in a safe way), and thereby limiting adrenaline. Be sure to discuss your options with your GP.

To date, my shaking hands are the most troublesome indicator of what I live with. I ignored my social anxiety for a decade and the tremor is a lasting reminder. It’s a deterrant, one that I take very seriously… to always respect my brain.

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22 Comments

  1. Jamie
    January 20, 2019 / 8:34 pm

    This is great stuff, am going to get those books you recommend & read them back to back, for too long I’ve been kidding myself & I really need to face up to this & break the horrible cycle. It would be just great if you could write about CBT thought chart in more detail, when you have time. Thanks again, perfect description of what I am going thro past 5 years x

  2. January 20, 2019 / 8:38 pm

    I love that you tried holding your breath to combat the panic. It probably made so much sense at the time but really that’s the opposite of what you should do! I’m glad the beta blocker helped, but did you ever see a therapist?
    -Sean
    http://www.nerd-mind.com

    • allmadhere
      Author
      January 20, 2019 / 8:39 pm

      I know right!!! Haha 14 year old me had some strange ideas. Yes I did. I’m in such a better place these days.

  3. Laura
    January 20, 2019 / 9:33 pm

    Great post!
    I have fear of fear. Trembling hands is an issue for me and I imagine all day what types of situations I may face that could trigger it. 😒 exhausting!
    It helps to know im not an isolated weirdo but just a person, like other people who have a condition.
    I saw a hypnotherapist for the first time yesterday. Did this help you?
    Did you ever question using propanolol because it can become a bit of a crutch and stop real progress in changing the negative thoughts?

    • allmadhere
      Author
      January 20, 2019 / 10:00 pm

      Thanks for your message Laura. Not an isolated weirdo, I’m right there with ya! 😘🧠 Hypnotherapy definitely helped me to relax, which took some of the strain off. Propranolol was a short term thing. Sort of a boost for the first month. Now I only use it as & when.

  4. January 21, 2019 / 9:47 am

    Great post Claire and great advice as well. I tend to find distractions more helpful than breathing when having a panic attack but breathing does help when I’m ‘just’ feeling anxious. Reading and listening to podcasts in particular are the best for me, there’s something so relaxing about getting lost in a book and when I find my mind drifting I can pull my attention back to the book by focusing on the words, if that makes sense.

    Did you see a professional hypnotherapist? I’ve never tried it and heard it can work wonders for anxiety and stress levels.

    • allmadhere
      Author
      January 21, 2019 / 10:07 am

      Good call Peter. I do love a distraction technique. Audio books work wonders for me at the moment.
      I did yes, but there are some great apps available too. In fact I think Chloe Brotheridge provides a free download if you subscribe to her website.

  5. Jo Hercberg
    January 23, 2019 / 11:58 am

    Thank you SO much for raising this. I too started suffering with blushing during secondary school and it was terrible, it followed me into the start of my career and I remember my boss sitting there saying ‘why are you going red? why are you so red? stop it!’ which of course made it a million times worse. It seemed to stop once I got to 30. I have finally realised at 36 that I have pretty bad social anxiety and panic discorder but I never knew blushing was part of that. I’ve suffered through years of panic, weird habits to try and get through the day and generally thinking I was going to die or do something awful throughout my 20s. I will take a read of the books mentioned. Thanks for writing about this it’s so comforting to know I’m not alone xx

    • allmadhere
      Author
      January 23, 2019 / 12:56 pm

      You’re so welcome. Blushing can be traumatic! I hope you find the books useful. Xx

  6. January 25, 2019 / 3:17 pm

    Great post, thanks so much for sharing. I’ve suffered anxiety ever since I can remember and it made me feel so alone If I’m in a large crowd I begin to panic almost immediately, I feel myself sweating, and my heart starts to race It’s terrible. I try my best to hide my true feelings in front of people to save any embarrassment and I never talk about it to anyone the only time I do is when I write about it on my blog. It’s so comforting to know that I’m not alone and that this affects so many people thanks again. x

    http://www.peacefullybroken.com

  7. January 25, 2019 / 8:33 pm

    Hi,

    thanks a lot for all the recommendations, I had a lot of problems in the past with anxiety issues and to be honest even nowadays it’s not easy fighting for my mental well-being and I’m always thankful for people who help others so thanks a lot, much appreciated!

    Tina

    • allmadhere
      Author
      January 25, 2019 / 10:58 pm

      Thanks Tina xx

  8. Emily
    January 27, 2019 / 4:07 pm

    Why does medication have to be the only answer?

    Sadly it looks like that’s the only way for me to go to finally be able to speak to people. My worries are the long term effects of becoming dependent on the drugs. The possible side effects. Wondering if people can tell you are on it.

    What were any side effects you noticed?

  9. Sue Taylor
    January 27, 2019 / 6:03 pm

    Over 60 now and still blush a lot. Less bothered by it now but why do people feel the need to tell you you’ve gone red? I think it was only a few years ago that I heard the term social anxiety and realised that I’d been crippled by it since childhood. So if you’re young and have it please get some help now

    • allmadhere
      Author
      January 27, 2019 / 6:04 pm

      Thank you for your comment Sue. You’re NEVER too old to get help.

  10. February 9, 2019 / 4:29 am

    I have never read something that I relate to more!! I struggle with anxiety, and specifically the blushing and sweating (and consequently the fear of these symptoms) have felt so crippling. I believe I truly am an extrovert, but I’ve found myself avoiding people and places because I’m so afraid of what people will think when I blush, etc when talking with them. I’ve been working on challenging those thoughts that everyone is judging me. I know avoiding these situations with only exacerbate the fear and anxiety. Your story about dating is SO encouraging to me though, so thank you!

    • allmadhere
      Author
      February 9, 2019 / 9:40 am

      Hi Gabrielle, I’m really glad that you found this useful. Blushing for no reason can be super embarrassing (the irony)! But there are ways to deal with it. Give it time & be kind to yourself xx

  11. Gemma
    February 9, 2019 / 10:11 pm

    This is the first thing I’ve read regarding anxiety and the physical symptoms and feelings that I can actually take comfort in and relate to, it is so reassuring to read when there is someone who can truly put to words how you have been feeling inside but feeling so alone with it. I have been suffering with anxiety since moving far away from my family with my daughter, which in turn has lead to panic attacks, and mostly palpitations and my chest thumping almost continuously, which escalates my fear of those symptoms thinking something is seriously wrong with me, doctors prescribed me propranolol which I have been to scared to take, as I was given Citalopram which made everything worse for me, but reading that other people take propanolol for the physical symptoms is really reassuring to me. To know I can take it along with CBT I’m hoping for improvement. I will be ordering your book straight away!

    • allmadhere
      Author
      February 9, 2019 / 10:46 pm

      I’m so glad you found this useful Gemma. Propranolol really helped with some of my more aggressive physical symptoms. Great to hear that you’re having CBT too. Xx

  12. March 25, 2019 / 2:27 pm

    “I’m not well. This is my body’s way of telling me there’s a problem. It’s trying to help me. I need to stop punishing it with ignorance and anger.” – yes, precisely this! I was diagnosed with stress and temporary insomnia when I was in university. Before that I was told I was highly intelligent or gifted and this is what made me ‘socially awkward’ – a lot of misdiagnoses that’s for sure. When I started having panic attacks because my toddler wanted pizza for dinner, and we didn’t have pizza – I knew that I couldn’t ignore things anymore. We can’t deal with social anxiety, unless we’re willing to admit we have it. Brilliant post!

  13. April 8, 2019 / 1:32 pm

    This post is the bomb. My social anxiety stems from the fear of blushing and not being able to control my blotchy chest which has a mind of it’s own! Then the anxiety started to be triggered by lots of other things too. Worrying about being ill in public, puking, coughing fits, asthma, being put in the spotlight, etc. Currently writing my own blog as a cathartic way to figure this shit out!!!
    Looking forward to reading you content.
    Rhea.
    x

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