My own story
The symptoms of social anxiety are covered on the ‘Anxiety Explained’ page. Here I want to share my own story of how I managed to come through it as so many people can become socially crippled when meeting and talking with others.
Before I suffered with anxiety I was a very happy and confident person. Social situations never bothered me in the slightest. I would not say I could talk in front of a thousand people, but generally I was pretty confident and had little trouble with social situations.
When anxiety first hit me, I worried continuously about what was causing the sensations I was feeling. I thought deeply, day in, day out, trying to figure a way out of my own personal hell. With this extra worry and stress on my already tired body, I began to feel more anxious than ever. Not only that, but by being so concerned about myself daily, I was beginning to feel detached from my surroundings and my anxiety consumed me. This feeling of detachment made it very hard for me to hold a conversation and I became very self-aware, distant and odd. I would hardly be listening to or engaging in the conversation and would feel quite detached from it, which led to me either wanting to run away from the situation or babbling as I tried to hide how I felt. All I wanted to do was get it over with and I used to get some very strange looks at times. I would also avoid eye contact and just wanted to escape. Because of this, I started avoiding people and I was perceived as ignorant more than once. I don’t blame people for this perception of me and as far as I was concerned that was far better than having to go and talk to others. I just found it so difficult to hold a conversation and I never felt part of it.
I had basically developed social anxiety, not because I feared people but because I found conversations so difficult. Through my avoidance behaviour, my mind then started to associate people as something to avoid. Again my mind was innocent in all of this. It was just doing what it was designed to do and was protecting me from what I had been avoiding for so long.
When things began to improve
When I finally built up my understanding and found the answers to the way I was feeling, a lot of my symptoms began to leave me. One thing that didn’t change and I just took for granted, was that conversations continued to be hard work. I still felt odd and not part of them, not as much as I once did but they were still something to be avoided. I just thought it was something I would have to live with and turned down a few offers where I knew I would have to speak with people. I never even considered it was a form of social anxiety at the time as I did not have the sweating and blushing symptoms that I had read so much about. I did not mind people, I just found it so difficult to hold a conversation and make eye contact without the feelings of detachment and being so self-aware.
As others who know me will tell you, I never wanted to settle for just getting through with safety behaviours and I had to get to the bottom of why I felt this way. I first realised it was social anxiety by understanding the simple truth that it was social situations I struggled with. This was brought about by me avoiding people because of how I felt – ‘don’t speak to people and you won’t feel odd and detached, you won’t make a fool of yourself and look stupid; far better to avoid the situation’ – WRONG!
This went on for years as I had taught my subconscious mind to see people as something to be avoided. As soon as I saw a person I may have to speak with, my reaction was instant: “Oh no, here we go again, quick get it over with”. It was precisely this attitude that I had to overcome. Nothing would ever change while I was thinking like this, consciously or otherwise. I had to begin to no longer see meeting people socially as a problem and, more than anything, this had to start with no longer caring if I came across as odd and detached as this really was at the root of my problem. This was not going to be easy as there was so much habit and memory at work, but there had been a time when I was not like this and I just had to reverse the process back to the old me.
What I began to do
I actually remember the first time I decided to stop avoiding and hit the bogeyman head on. It came when I was meeting a friend in a pub who had brought someone with him. After a quick hello, my friend went to the toilet and left me with his friend. This was my ultimate nightmare; being left with someone I did not know and no one to help keep the conversation going. I was on my own. So off I went making my usual false excuse to go elsewhere when the light came on. I was doing it again – avoiding! This behaviour would never change if I kept this up. Only one person could reverse this and that was me. So, I actually turned around and thought “Sod it, I am doing this? It’s a person, not a bleeding lion”. I began to talk with him and it went quite well, far better than I thought. I had for once not run away or made excuses to rush off. I mean, what could be so bad about talking to someone? The answer was ‘nothing’. If I felt odd or distant from now on, then so be it, I would no longer care. I would not run away from a social situation again, however it went. I was going to reverse this process come what may. If avoidance got me in this hole, the opposite would get me out of it. I just had to get used to it again and see it as normal.
My first steps
One of the biggest realisations was that it wasn’t me that feared people; it was a reaction in my mind. My mind had the fear, not me. So I could actually watch this fear reaction, identify with it and go with it by escaping or avoiding, which means being tricked by believing I was truly in danger. Or I could see it was nonsensical, that there was no real danger here and override my minds reaction by staying.
There were times when I would start a conversation and try to distract myself, sometimes by watching the TV or pretending to text on my phone, just to avoid eye contact, but I had to snap myself out of these habits, I did not have to follow my mind’s reaction anymore, I needed to take control and teach it that I was fine. The odd feelings may hit at first. That was fine and only natural; they would subside. By staying and no longer running away, even with this fear reaction present, I was finally beginning to reverse this process. Finally, I was moving forward and teaching my mind that this was normal. There was nothing to fear or run away from and it was finally accepting that message. While I ran away or avoided the situation, I was sending the message that there was a problem and so the same fear reaction would continue.
In time, I began to feel far less fear and far less self-conscious. It was becoming second nature now. I was sending all the right signals to my mind through my actions – “Look, there is nothing to be afraid of. I no longer need your protection. I’m fine now”.
Things just got so much easier and the old me – the person that could chat away freely – was coming back. I had no urge whatsoever to find a quick exit or avoid eye contact. The new habit had become me and I no longer took notice of any instinct to retreat. I was back in charge. This all came through a habit that I had created myself and the only way to reverse it was to just put myself back out there and if ever I felt like pulling away in future, I would actually do the opposite and go towards.
If I had carried on avoiding I would still be in the same hole now. I think I just wanted to wake up one day and find it was not a problem anymore. I wanted to just magically wake up and be able to chat freely to people again without any problems. Well I waited too many years for that day. Only one person could help me and that was me. Avoidance had been my jailer for so long until I regained control and became the person I once was.