Over lockdown, my social anxiety reared its unwanted and ugly little head. Along with a myriad of other issues that made themselves known, anxiety over my health, hopelessness, and alienation, the social anxiety felt the most present. As a social creature whose core desire is to feel safe and accepted, it’s affecting my life, behaviour, and interactions in a significant way.
Sometimes I forget about social anxiety. I can be extroverted and outgoing, and may at times seem relatively confident and cool-headed. Pre-lockdown I had an insane schedule, jumping from one work commitment to another, barely having time to sit still with my thoughts. Now, with everything coming to a standstill, the momentum has been lost, and I have felt like I’m in a constant battle with my brain.
I have experienced social anxiety since I was around 13. It’s overwhelming at different points, coming in hot when I am in foreign or unsafe situations. I first noticed it when I was rejected at school. I was so anxious I avoided going to school and ate lunch in the bathroom. When I moved schools, things improved markedly. I began to finally feel like things were back on track. My parents breathed a huge sigh of relief – they were so worried about me they got teachers to keep logs of how I was doing and report back to them. The wounds never fully healed though. My self-esteem took a massive hit, and now I still struggle with major self-worth issues. Over the years I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider. Loneliness has crept up beside me, and it’s been a difficult companion to shake.
Do all of us struggle with social anxiety to certain degrees? Probably. We all feel a little bit anxious or awkward in some social situations. It’s normal to care about other people’s opinions and perceptions of you. After socialising we may think “damn that really wasn’t my best work”, and proceed to pick apart everything we said or did. As experts would say, anything really becomes an issue when it starts to affect elements of your life. So though it’s normal to feel anxious at times, if the social anxiety is becoming debilitating, and results in you avoiding, or partaking in self-destructive behavior, then it demands to be addressed.
A few weeks ago I was playing Mafia in a group. I explained the rules and we had a mock game and then we started playing and someone else took over the role of narrator. As the game started, someone would secretly be picked by the mafia to be the first victim. As my eyes were closed and the mafia was choosing, I thought, “it’s going to be you. Nobody likes you and they want you out of the game”. It was this insidious thought that I couldn’t shake, though it was completely ridiculous. As we all opened our eyes and the narrator started the story, that intrusive thought was still there. Just as I had predicted, the narrator described me as the first victim of the mafia. I smiled a little unconvincingly and went “oh well”, and then excused myself to go to the bathroom. I knew it was a game and I knew my thoughts were out of proportion, but the “rejection” part of my brain was activated. That’s a key feature of social anxiety, having this strong negativity bias where you predict something bad will happen and then when it does all of your worst fears become confirmed.
When I walked back into the room, I found out that I wasn’t the one picked to die first. The mafia had chosen someone next to me, and the narrator had mistakenly thought it was me. The temporary feeling of relief was replaced by feeling incredibly silly. It showed me how my brain could so easily go to these extremely irrational places. With social anxiety, you stop trusting your brain, as it doesn’t seem to be working in your favour.
Social anxiety results in me withdrawing from groups. I don’t have confidence in what I say, and I am self-conscious. I am cripplingly sensitive to other people’s treatment of me. It also can feel like a vicious cycle, where I alienate myself as a result of social anxiety and then feel even worse. If someone acts cold to me compared to someone else, alarm bells start ringing. If I enter a room and people look up and barely acknowledge me, I think “what is wrong with me?” Social media is also awful for my social anxiety. In lockdown, I’ve found Instagram to be a very effective trigger to spiralling into some pretty negative thought patterns.
In the past, I’ve used alcohol to cope with my anxiety, especially if I was going to a party or out somewhere with new people. Drinking would help me feel more relaxed and less inhibited. My therapist very accurately described alcohol as a temporary bridge that allows you to cross from one side to another over icy cold water. When you wake up in the morning, the bridge is gone, and you are forced to swim back to the other side in the water. It’s such a fleeting solution, and causes more issues in the long term. I still drink alcohol, but I try to be more mindful. The hangxiety in itself post-drinking should be enough of a deterrent. With social anxiety, the coping mechanisms can be avoidance, or self-medication, to certain degrees of severity.
I never want to feel like I’m using social anxiety as a crutch or an excuse. I don’t want to use social anxiety to not do things, or push myself out of my comfort zone. It does help to explain a lot however. Shame and social anxiety go hand in hand. It felt almost impossible to actually talk about it with other people. Like a huge flaw in my personality, and a weakness that I should cover up and hide. So many people have begun to be open about their struggles with mental health. It’s incredibly brave to talk about mental health, on a personal level, because there are still so many misunderstandings around it. I still don’t understand if how I feel is a disorder, or just something I’m going through. I get a lot of meaning by listening to interviews of celebrities talk about their own experience with mental health. My respect for them skyrockets, as it helps those watching feel less alone. I gravitate towards podcasts which feature guests talking about their own personal struggles, life lessons, and wisdom. This content is deeply nourishing to me, and it makes me think that maybe I could be more vulnerable in my own life.
You need to be discerning when talking about your own experiences with mental health. You don’t want to expose too much, and you want to open up to the right people, those who will hold space for you and not make you feel even more ashamed. It’s not just about reaching out and talking, it’s our responsibility as humans to actually create spaces and concrete relationships which can withstand conversations that are sometimes difficult or taboo. All of those PSA’s about Mental Health are vital, but it does need to go further than that. Though it’s accepted that lockdown has been mentally rough on most of us, are we ready to actually express how it’s affected us, in all of the ugliness and hard stuff?
It’s not a straightforward journey navigating social anxiety, including the adjacent issues that either cause it or are a product of it. When thoughts arise that are intrusive and dark and negative, instead of giving over all my power to them, I choose instead to observe them. Without judgement. I try to avoid meta-self hatred, where I beat myself up over beating myself up. I need to work on believing that I am actually worthy of love, acceptance, and connection with others. It’s a constant process and it involves unlearning lots of negative beliefs. Telling your story can be a vital part of it and it’s never too late to start.