Friday, August 2, 2013

A Note on Social Anxiety.

Mine is in regression. It does not disable me, nor prevent me from living my life the way i want to, in the way that it used to.

In no way does that mean its effect on me is no longer an issue. It is still a part of my everyday life. It's still entirely and utterly unpleasant and stressful.

I can best describe it with an analogy. Here's an example:

I'm just back at university, and yesterday i had the first tutorial of a course (which is where a tutor guides a couple of dozen students through hands-on course work with discussion).

Think of my anxiety as water in a saucepan. The tutorial's about to start, so i walk into the room with all of the other students.

I don't know most of these people.
Where am i going to sit?
What's going to happen in this tutorial?
I hope i don't get stuck next to that guy who always stinks.

If cold water means i'm perfectly calm, and hot water means i'm stressing out, we can fill the saucepan with warm water as a starting point. I'm somewhat nervous about what's going to happen, but then again, so are most of the other people, and my level of anxiety could probably be called typical.

The tutor stands up, does his introduction, runs us through a little bit of what tutorials are going to involve, and then says we're going to do an ice-breaker.


Put the saucepan on the stove, and turn it onto a medium heat.

Had this been a few years ago, you'd have been pouring the water into an electric kettle, wrapping it in an electric blanket and turning it on, putting it on the stove on a high heat, enclosing the kitchen in a stove, setting the stove on fire, then tossing it into the fiery pits of Hell.

To speak publicly, to strangers, as a social phobe, is akin to asking an arachnophobe to lie down in a bath full of tarantulas.

But i've had treatment and exposure. So i can manage.

I really want to make friends.
I have to make a good first impression.
I know i'm going to get anxious.
I can feel myself blushing already.
But i can do this.

It's entirely irrational. Most phobias are. I've had treatment for social anxiety, i've worked in customer service, i'm introspective, i wrote an goddamn essay on social anxiety. I've had years to get to know this disorder and all its ins and outs. Prior to that, the thoughts were:

What if i say or do something stupid?
Everything will think i'm weird.

I won't be able to make any friends and i'll ruin the entire semester and be depressed.

Casebook stuff for a social phobia diagnosis.

But those thoughts don't trouble me so much these days.

It's difficult to explain. After years of suffering, your body becomes conditioned in its response to provoking situations. Eventually, it becomes such a reflex that you begin anticipating anxiety.

You can rid yourself of irrational thoughts. Irrational reflexes are much harder to erode. So you become anxious about becoming anxious - about displaying typical signs and symptoms of anxiety. This nasty fucker of a disorder wraps its tendrils around your brain so tightly that no matter how hard you try, once it's in you, it's in there for life. It feeds back on itself and you begin to fear fear itself.

But, like i said, i manage. How?


I don't just want to suffer through this.
I want to make friends.
I want to have a good time.
I can do this.

I've just been informed i have to face my fears, and this ice-breaker's coming at me like a truck. My saucepan's starting to simmer on its medium heat by the time the tutor's finished explaining it. You have to tell the class your name, why you chose Psych, and a random fact about yourself.

I know how my anxiety works. If the speeches start in some corner of the room and slowly, painfully, inevitably, creep towards me, like i'm the movie hero strapped to a table with a deadly laser creeping towards my balls, my water will be boiling by the time it gets to my turn.

So i volunteer to go first.

Crank the stove up to high, and i'm on the clock. What follows is a tentative balance between chasing my goals and doing myself proud and then quickly-shutting-it-down-before-the-saucepan-boils-over. I give myself as much space as i can to be humourous or interesting without the cracks of what's going on inside showing.

Then it's over.

I grit my teeth inside my mouth, and squeeze the chair under the table with my hands so that it hurts, while pretending to listen to the next person but really not hearing a word, and let the anxiety wash over myself. The saucepan's off the stove, and it's still too hot to touch, but it's cooling slowly.

I could have given short, succinct answers possible. I could have said my favourite colour was red and be done, instead of telling the class about my three pet rats, who are just the cutest, and who live in a huge cage with four levels, who we let out to run around on the bed but obviously not on the floor because that would be silly.

I could have not ridden that fine line, and that would have been a lot less stressful. It would have been a lot easier. But where does easy get you? Would i be pursuing my goals?

Each and every day i step outside is a challenge. Sometimes i don't feel up to it. Whether that be getting my boyfriend to order dinner instead of me, staying in my room when my housemates have visitors over, or passing up an opportunity to socialise because the anxiety is uncomfortable.

Is that okay? Some of you might think so. But it's not. I'm not okay with that. Why should i be? Fuck that. If i'm lazy or complacent i'm not being the best person i can be and i'm missing out. I want to be happy, because i deserve to be.

It's a daily battle with myself, but i know my opponent well, and i'm winning.


naturgesetz said...

"It's a daily battle with myself, but i know my opponent well, and i'm winning." Yay!

I think that as you continue to face these situations and get through them your anxiety will gradually diminish.

I never had anything quite like what you have, but I've never been really comfortable with those sorts of icebreakers. What I really used to hate were the public speaking courses in high school and college. I'd spend the entire class hoping I wouldn't be the next one called. Then I went into local politics and I had to speak in public. Over the years it became less and less stressful. And I've been at so many meetings where we have to introduce ourselves that the temperature of the water probably only goes up a couple of degrees. Your experience may vary, but I 'd expect that the more you face these situations, the less stressful they'll be.

It was very wise of you to volunteer to go first so you could stop worrying. Now pick up the phone and order dinner. ;)

Mirrorboy said...

Thanks for commenting so i can procrastinate studying.

You're right, the anxiety dimishes with time both in the short-term and long-term.

If i've been away from uni/work for a few weeks, it's significantly higher when i'm facing going there compared to a typical day when i've been going frequently throughout the week.

When it comes to the long-long-term, as i push my self more and more, my baseline level of anxiety definitely lowers. Peaks don't become as intense.

I'm grateful for the help of my therapists because until they came along the peaks were so high they were simply unmanageable, but now i'm able to manage my own exposure and self-treat in a way.

Steevo said...

How times change... happy for you!

J said...

One thing I learned from piano recitals was that stage fright abates the more often you perform. In time your speaking and interactions will be so commonplace you won't have to worry about this problem anymore. And, damn, you're still such a good writer.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading this, but I don't know why I didn't comment.

I think of how far you've come since I first met you in your blog some 3 years ago now. It's so great to see you living life, dealing with life, and it seems like you're really taking life by the horns. That's awesome, Mirrorboy!

Peace <3