May 20, 2016

What Social Anxiety Feels Like & My Toolbox to Help through the Rough Times.

fear scared tired covering face alone sad

I timidly enter my therapist’s office and check in with the receptionist.

I assess the seating arrangements in the waiting room, looking for the seat that will be least likely to invite any sociable extroverts to sit next to me and chat me up while we wait.

I choose a corner chair next to a table and put my bag in the chair next to me, hoping that signal will be enough of a message to anyone looking to make friends at their mental health appointment, that I am not yet equipped for the job. As much as I’d like to be, I’m not there quite yet.

On the table next to me are plastic brochure holders filled with glossy papers about services offered and business cards for the therapists and doctors. But, what catches my eye is the 8×10 plexiglas frame taking center stage on the table and the flyer it’s displaying:

“Social Anxiety Support Group

Meetings every Thursday at seven p.m.

Spaces open, Inquire at Reception!”

Well, I desperately need support for my social anxiety, but unfortunately, the reason I need it so badly is the exact reason I can’t make it to such a meeting. Leave my house at night? To meet and talk with strangers? My heart is racing and I’m getting numb and tingly under my arms just thinking about it. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m busy those nights. Or any night.

I have had social anxiety for most of my adult life. It waxes and wanes depending on what’s going on in my life or in my head or possibly even how the stars are aligned or if the tide is low. Sometimes it’s behaved and well-trained, like a really good dog, which in the right circumstances doesn’t relieve himself on the floor or bark at invisible threats or jump up and sniff the crotches of guests. It is totally in control. I am so proud of its restraint I could cry.

But, life doesn’t always stay perfect and then Anxiety makes an executive decision to be in control. Life happens and Anxiety flares up, and then I have the dog that is peeing on the couch, barking in the middle of the night and rudely sniffing crotches, leaving me feeling utterly helpless and out-of-control. And wanting a new dog.

People without Anxiety (and, yes, I feel like chronic Anxiety deserves to be capitalized, that’s how big it is) sometimes don’t understand the degree to which this little tyrant can hold its prisoners hostage. It is not “butterflies” or nerves or something you can just get over. It is full blown “fight or flight”, and it flares up over the most ridiculous things. And, I can say they are ridiculous things because from my first-hand experience, they really are ridiculous.

You know that feeling you get when you are racing down the highway going 80mph and you pass a parked police car, waiting for speeders? You feel this hot rush of panic and prickly sweat and the pounding of your heart in your chest and throat and ears, and your mind is already scripting what you’re going to say when you get pulled over, and you’re mad at yourself because you really shouldn’t have been going that fast, and you’re wondering what this is going to do to your insurance rates and you’re thinking how late you’re going to be now…

That is what Anxiety feels like, but even in seemingly tame situations.

Those of us with an Anxiety Disorder feel it in the grocery store. And in the grocery store checkout. And when they offer to take our groceries to the car for us. And even when we are anticipating going to the grocery store. And when it’s bad, it prompts us to order our groceries online and have them delivered to the house. (Oh, yes, I did.) And in the pediatrician’s waiting room and when we take our kids to birthday parties and have to talk to other mothers, and at our spouse’s annual party and at the mall when well-meaning salespeople, in all their attempts to be helpful, are scaring us to death.

Forget meeting up with friends for lunch or happy hour. We feel it anytime we are “out” and at risk of potentially mixing with other people. It is just too much. The fear of being judged. The fear of making a mistake. The fear of looking stupid.

And don’t get me started on phone calls. Uh uh. Just not happening.

So what can those suffering with Anxiety do about it?

For me, it has been greatly helpful to keep a mental “toolbox” full of the tools I need to help get me through the rough times, and I keep these things written down and posted nearby so they are in my face and ready to grab at any moment. Everyone’s toolbox will look different. As you make yours, know what soothes you and put it in there. Build a go-to list and go to it.

My toolbox looks something like this:

Talk to a therapist (regularly!)

Text someone who gets it (notice I didn’t say call…)

Be outside.

Take a bath.

Read something inspirational or just plain distracting.

Repeat a mantra (my favorite is simply telling myself “I’m okay” until I believe it.)


(and the biggest one)…Cut myself some slack.

I pretty much know that one outing a day is all I can handle, and then I need to be back home. I know that if I’m out all day, then at the end of the day I need solitude (and a bath and a book) to recharge. When overwhelmed, standing outside and soaking up the sky and trees and grass and sun calms me. Getting somewhere quiet and listening only to my breathing. Talking to a therapist regularly, especially when I’m flared up.

And, practicing yoga has been an absolute life-saver. But not in a big studio. Just at home. By myself. One thing I know is that the part of my brain and nervous system that causes my anxiety is also the supersensitive, empathic part of me. The part of me that feels things deeply and makes me passionate about things that a lot of people don’t even notice. The part of me that makes me a great mother. A gifted healer. A good friend. And, I’m okay with that trade-off because I really do love how deeply I perceive the world around me.

But, you know what else? I know that with patience, time, and a well-filled toolbox, there is hope for all of us.  And it starts with acceptance and embracing yourself as you are, loving and lifting yourself up the way you would another person you saw suffering.

Today, I am not the same woman who long-ago saw the support group flyer at the therapist’s office. I have come so far. I now teach yoga to others with anxiety, speak publicly, host events and can actually enjoy a good lunch or happy hour with my friends. I can go to the grocery store and mall and even make eye contact and witty conversation with salespeople without breaking a sweat. I might still need a nap afterwards, but I can do it!

And, so can you.

And, if anyone out there ever gets up the courage to go to a Social Anxiety Support Group, please let me know how it goes. I’m dying to hear. But, don’t call me, just text.

I still don’t love answering the phone.


Author: Amy Bradley

Editor: Sara Kärpänen

Photo: Megan Leetz / Flickr & lookcatalog / Flickr

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