Ways You Might Have Social Anxiety - And How To Cope With It
A harbinger of communicative doom, social anxiety can creep up on us in the most unsuspecting of ways: at your job, on a night out, or even when trying to order your gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, gender neutral chocolate soufflé from your local West London haunt. It is in spite of it being a fairly common mental health issue for the vast majority of us, that we often fail to notice the signs, fail to address it, and thus our interaction with others stagnates, makes us feel more insecure and inadequate, and consequently results in the "hiding away from the world" scenario which is commonly associated with this disorder (and sadly, exacerbates it.)
Social anxiety affects most of us at some point in our lives - your mileage of how often and how much it may affect you will certainly vary, but if we can just avoid sweeping the symptoms under the rug for fear of sounding like a drama queen, then perhaps we can all be more understanding to one another should they face difficulties overcoming social phobias.
Below are some common symptoms attributed to social anxiety - I certainly haven't included all of them, and there will be a degree of variation in how you might feel during a social event. These are a mixture of anecdotal, personal experiences, in addition to others' testimonials and assented medical definitions.
You struggle to talk to others, or to make eye contact.
This is commonly confused with either shyness, rudeness, or tiredness - but the truth is, with social anxiety, sometimes your mind is flooded with such incoherence, insecurity and fear that the last thing you want to do is impinge your presence onto anyone else. There are so many reasons as to why you might become more isolated or worried during a social situation: to some, it might seem as though you're 'zoned out' or disinterested, when in reality your brain is screaming at you to avoid saying anything - hell, even breathing - in others' presence to avoid coming across as stupid, rude, annoying, useless, or all of the above. The amount of stimulants in an area - people talking, noises, groups of conversations - can prove to be so overwhelming for the individual with anxiety that we may just tend to shut off, and hope for the best that we're not in anyone's way or being an inconvenience.
The solution? The key to overcoming this is to start shifting your obsessive analysis of your own perceived shortcomings (which don't exist, by the way) and paranoia into objective observation of the outside world. The problem with social anxiety is that we see the world around us blurred by a fishbowl lens, distorted by our own paranoia, insecurity, and fear of who we are and how others perceive us. It's exceptionally hard, but once we start to see life and our surroundings objectively, with clarity and not tinted by emotion, we can see things for what they really are and stop projecting our fears onto scenarios which don't even exist!
You talk too much, too fast - and not in a coherent, conversational manner. ("Talkward")
This is possibly the most difficult symptom to deal with, because some people still associate 'chatterbox = happy, overconfident, boisterous' when in reality the underlying reasoning for talking too much can be sinister. This assumption means talking about your social anxiety can be difficult, especially if people perceive you to be loquacious. Talking too much can come from a helpless sense of urgency and fear, where your mind is going at a million miles per minute and is unable to process conversations properly as you're too busy thinking God, what if I say something stupid? I should try be nice. What if this person hates me? Am I being too annoying? Maybe I should apologise for how annoying I'm being. Or actually, maybe try act cool. Or, essentially running on autopilot to try get you through the stress and worry of being in that situation. Or, even still, in your mind there is that chastising, telling yourself, be quiet, you’re talking to much, no one cares, everyone is judging you. Yet the threat of silence creates those made-up images in our head that the world is hostile and scary - so we go into word vomit mode to try 'protect' ourselves, and get us through that gaping abyss. Thus exacerbates need to talk more even though you might be dying of panic and anxiety inside. Not to mention - the quality of what you actually say is essentially drivel, and being aware of this as you speak ineloquently (but unable to stop it due to the anxiety itself!) can be really soul-destroying. After big social gatherings, it is not uncommon for you to need even days of recuperation, just to resettle your mind and get back to '0'.
The solution? Self-awareness - and self-kindness - are key in addressing this issue and learning to embrace the silence. Silence is uncomfortable because we are faced with those demons and monsters of nasty thoughts, telling us that we aren't worthy, that everyone hates us, that we'll never belong. Nonetheless if we never face those monsters we shall never be able to slay them! Techniques which help include yogic breathing (deep from the belly, steady and rhythmic) which help calm your mind to clear it out from the stimuli which provokes nervous speaking; regular meditation - another great one to help declutter the mind, and help you face the silence; and practical things such as counting from 4 to 0 after you've spoken in that 'break' when it comes to letting others speak before you (helps you avoid interrupting, and trains your mind to get used to 'the flow' of a conversation) as well as helping you take the focus off from your own thoughts onto the person speaking - a win-win, as you can actually connect to them and engage in a great chat (which they'll appreciate!) and you can help shift some of that stress away!
You feel absolute dread being in group scenarios, or large crowds.
When do I start to talk? Do I talk about this topic, or move on? Why are they laughing without me? Do I try to get involved? Do they hate me? The issue with a larger group, is that there are more stimulants surrounding us - which means, projections about who we are, are magnified fully until we can do nothing but stay meekly in the corner, wishing the minutes away. Teamwork can also become quite problematic - not because you're anti-social or selfish - because you compound everything that you hate: trusting yourself, being yourself, and essentially being vulnerable to yourself as you fear that the others will judge you, think you're stupid or a useless spare cog in the wheel. It also precludes that you might have to indulge in that one thing you utterly dread: small talk. Ain't nobody got time for that.
The solution? This tip can be applied to all of these symptoms, to be honest - exposure therapy is your best call to action; in fact, numerous studies have demonstrated how effective it is in terms of healing mental trauma and becoming more autonomous in one's everyday living. That means throwing yourself into activities where people and groups are involved; and slowly but surely building up the confidence needed, so one day you might actually - gasp - somewhat enjoy team building exercises or groups! If you really are struggling, always have a 'mental escape' to get you through the necessary bits of work - in just a few hours, I can curl up to a good book and reset - I know, naughty as it's not particularly mindful, but anxiety can be very crippling and sometimes you gotta do you gotta do! Another thing to remember: people are far too busy to be worrying about you. They're far more likely to be worrying what you are thinking of them.
You dread phone calls.
No body language, no chance to pause to think what to say, no idea when appropriate to say 'how are you' and 'goodbye' or 'how's your feng shui redecoration going?' - phone calls are any anxiety sufferer's worst nightmare (why oh why didn't you text, email, messenger pigeon for goodness sake?!) but in this day and age, both professionally and personally, it's imperative to find coping strategies so it doesn't hinder your growth in both aspects respectively - regardless whether you make a call, or receive one. You might have physical sensations prior to making a call: sweaty palms, nausea in stomach, or faster heart beat. You might do anything and everything in your power to avoid having to use the call, feeling sensations of terror or dread at the mere thought of picking a phone up.
The solution? Basic CBT such as mindfulness and meditation practice to help rid your mind of pervasive, incessant thoughts can help prevent rather than cure - and remembering to count the 'pauses' during the conversation to help guide you when speaking, so you feel calmer and more in control. Another tactic for those of you really affected is to literally rehearse your conversation - either write a little script, or just go through your head before what you want to say, how to say it, and potential responses. This sounds awfully childlike, but when it comes to mental health you really need to put in the self-care and basics necessary to improve and look after yourself.
You play with your hair, fidget, bite your nails...anything to relieve yourself from your nervous energy.
Whilst this isn't necessarily a hugely damaging symptom of SA, it can be damaging if left unattended as you use the behaviour/habit as a 'mask' for what you're really feeling. If you use it as a stimulant to try get you through the social event, then you may never actually be cognisant of the fact that you are anxious, and need to address it.
The solution? Fiddling occasionally is very natural and human - from foot shaking, fidgeting, to stretching in our seat. The problem is when we sort of 'zone out' as we fidget, as a means to distract ourself from the anxiety we are experiencing. It's important to try be as present as possible with how we feel, in order to address it and find ways of self-care to alleviate the pain.
You cancel plans last minute, very frequently, using dubious excuses.
I am definitely guilty of this one! SA sufferers are sadly mislabeled as 'flakes' due to their frequent cancellations of appointments and meet-ups. The truth is, days, nay, even weeks before an event, our brains can kick into overdrive and send us lovely little reminders of how the day could go horribly wrong; how you could embarrass yourself, or make everyone hate you, or how you're going to feel ostracised and totally out of it; people will point and laugh at you, you're such an embarrassment, you're going to look awful in that outfit you've bought, God why on Earth are you even going? That's when our bodies get tense; we start overthinking until our heart feels fit to burst; and we are at risk of anxiety/panic attacks even just by lying in bed thinking about the meet-up. Sometimes it's not even just a case of not wanting to go to their party - it's literally a case of, 'I physically can't go, else I will likely implode mentally and emotionally and have a breakdown in the middle of your Shoreditch flat balcony.'
The solution? If you are lucky to have understanding friends and family (thank God I do!) then explain to them your predicament, so they can help support you and encourage you to look after yourself, in addition to making the right baby steps in coming out. However, as discussed before - the world isn't a safe space, and you're going to need to step out from behind your four walls eventually, at some point. Well, we kind of need water and food...to live, and stuff. Set yourself goals and baby steps - ok, so you have four events this month, maybe that's too much, but why not aim to go to at least one and stay for two hours? You can build this up, as you realise it's not as scary as you one thought. Humans do thrive when surrounded by good, kind fellow beings - so it's a shame to miss out on occasions which will nourish your mind and soul. Plus, it's amazing to build character and help bring out that boldness in you. Always aim to break down those barriers you set up for yourself - the aim is to remind yourself of how limitless you really are, so baby steps are key in this.
You feel a general sense of awkwardness and unease socially - like you shouldn't be there, or you're annoying people.
This is the sort of chronic, dull ache which best characterises anxiety - the unshakeable feeling that you shouldn't be there. It can underline all that you do; your posture, actions, words and what you say to yourself. You then get yourself into a tailspin, creating a vicious cycle of endlessly overthinking, worrying, and denigrating yourself at the altar of non-existent self-esteem. Your words come out funny; you're physically more cumbersome because your mind is so busy focusing on non-existent worries as opposed to how you present yourself, your posture and general movements. It's a nightmare.
The solution? Seeing as this is an overall fitness and wellbeing blog, and given the fact I'm also a trainer, I think it pretty apt here to suggest training and proper nourishment to help offset anxious thinking. Having an hour to yourself where you're just moving your body, being mindful and really dedicating some self-care to you can improve your mood and self-confidence remarkably; it will clear some cobwebs and help you feel amazing, as you realise that, hell yes, you're bloody strong and marvellous after a session of challenging your mind and body. Similarly, gut health has been linked to mental health and calm; so be sure to stock up on fibrous green veggies, probiotics and gut-friendly flora and foods in general to ensure you're giving yourself the best fighting chance against your anxiety.
I hope this gives you guys a little bit of guidance and support when it comes to your anxious feelings - remember, I am by no means a professional, so always seek out help if you ever feel overwhelmed. Together, we can change the conversation and stop the stigma!