Social anxiety, also known as social phobia or a facet of anxiety disorder, is mainly characterised by an overwhelming fear of social situations. Many people can be affected by social anxiety, with it being very common for confident, out-going people to be affected by the symptoms at some point in their lives. It is assumed that around 10% of people living in the UK will at some point live with a social phobia.
The following article consists of a real-life account from one of Joshua’s close friends. For confidentiality purposes the name has been changed:
My Battle with Social Anxiety
Written by F. Boss
I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety on September 1st 2014, however judging by my past it should have been diagnosed more than a decade ago.
I was a very sociable and outgoing person, but I always thought something wasn’t quite right with me; I began noticing it more and more as I got older, and more importantly wiser, as I was learning what anxiety was.
Whilst out with friends I found I couldn’t look them in the eye for very long, without feeling self-conscious, paranoid and/or nervous around them. I had the same reaction when I was in crowded areas. No matter how big the crowd was all of a sudden I would:
- Have a racing heartbeat
- Start sweating, no matter the weather
- Feel a shortness of breathe
- Become easily agitated
- Constantly start fidgeting
For years I would self-medicate these symptoms by using / abusing alcohol. No matter the time or the place I had alcohol on me; and when I wasn’t socialising, I was working behind a bar, partly for employment and the enjoyment, but mainly because I was surrounded by something that ironically that made me feel ‘normal’. Bars being the ‘normal’ place people of my age meet and socialise. I used to be talkative and always up for a funny joke and have laugh whilst conversing.
Right now I’m the complete opposite. I rarely speak at home and when I am with my friends I do speak a little more but nothing like I used to. Maybe that was because I didn’t actually know if anything was wrong with me or maybe it was the alcohol giving me the confidence.
After getting diagnosed and then achieving sobriety, I was faced with dealing with my symptoms without any means of escapism. At first it was terrifying. For months I secluded myself from my friends and family. I would only leave my bedroom for the toilet and for meals prepared for me. The very idea of being away from my bedroom or as I knew it, my ‘safe house’ wasn’t a thought I was willing to accept. This is because it also came apparent that by abusing alcohol, I had also gained for myself a prominent case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS); this certainly knocked my already decreased self-confidence. I wasn’t able to nip to my local shop without panicking and needing the toilet. Car journeys are still one of the worst experiences for me, it still happens today. As soon as I leave the house the sensations start. The colours I see on houses, plants or whatever, the sound of the wind or cars pulling in front of ours, or even birds chirping are all amplified. Basically, everything gets bigger, brighter and louder and so the symptoms come racing right back as if I am taking my first footstep out the door.
I notice first my racing heartbeat, my muscles tensing up and my eyes are suddenly really wide. I quickly become this afflicted and scared mess. This happens on many an occasion. For example, it is quite often that when I have to attend a doctor appointment, or if I’m out with friends, I suddenly become paranoid. I become paranoid because I’m scared of how I will perceived and compared against my ‘normaI’ self. As an example of a reaction to this, I would race to the car, slam the door shut and put my seatbelt on. I would then suddenly have to pull the seatbelt strap away from my stomach, as it would feel like it was pushing against me as if I’m a tube of toothpaste. When I feel the squeeze of the belt around me, it feels like I’m going to explode at either end. This is where I conjured the similarity to a toothpaste tube.
It’s now a year down the line and I’m doing this. When I return home however, and I get back to my room, everything automatically disappears. I’m ironically free from my symptoms whilst being trapped in my room.
Family meals are not so much terrifying but my symptoms are there and this time I’m extremely agitated. It hurts when I perceive the people who I love – people who have seen me at my worst – as enemies because I’m questioning everything they say with such anger.
“My family are laughing, I wonder why? Is it at me? Am I so ill that I missed a significant story that I could have for one brief moment been laughing at? I’m sure they’re making this much noise to piss me off, surely. Nobody chews and breathes that loudly. These guys are meant to be coaxing me through this difficult period of my life and here they are testing me! No wonder they always want me to get out my room, they say it’s because when I’m alone the illness thrives on it. But it’s to make me the butt of their sick joke! I can’t trust anyone! Just because I’m failing at life doesn’t mean you can take pleasure in making this feeling worse! Oh my god, what is with all this noise? I have to get out of here, I need my room. I can control the sound there. If there’s a noise outside I can close the window; if the sun is too bright I can close my blind and curtains. I have complete control finally. The TV is quiet enough to deal with, no lights are on, so nothing will make my eyes squint and my heart isn’t racing from being judged every minute of everyday. Finally!”
I see a psychologist and psychiatrist very regularly and after sharing all of these thoughts in my head, the advice given to me was to express them to the people close to me in a calm manner so they could try and understand. Easy for them to say that isn’t it? You try living in my head for a day! I’ve had to deal with this for easily half my life! Getting this now silent person to be open and honest to a group of what I perceived to be, judgemental, loud and obnoxious people wasn’t going to work at all.
But, it did!
Well, it did in the way that they understood. You have to see what was stopping me progressing with this, was my pride. I was scared of looking weak, I don’t cry, I don’t shy away from confrontation and I will always put my point across. Then I realised I did all those things because alcohol was giving me the boost I needed. It now turns out I do cry, and at this particular time in my life, I cry a lot.
I absolutely hate confrontation because to me it’s just a useless tool that is used in this ‘heading to a dead end’ existence. When asked for my opinion, I always consider the other person’s feelings and, if I run the risk of hurting them, I will lie. People like me (and there are other people like me I have to remember) tend to make sure everyone around them is happy, because they know just how terrible it feels to constantly be feeling distraught. I have to say, I’ve accepted that by being honest with people has made me realise more about the sort of person I actually am.
It also turns out I’m not the only one with some form of anxiety. It also turns out it’s not something that is ‘wrong’ with me – nothing is ‘wrong’ with me!
I was given some medication to help with the anxiety but a lot of it could be helped by me learning some techniques. Deep and heavy breathing works for me, it calms my heartbeats and decreases the amount I sweat. I take my headphones with me whenever I leave the house and play my favourite music (which differs to match the mood that I’m in at the time) and I turn it up LOUD. To me music drowns out the noise from all around me and replaces it with something I don’t mind hearing loud. Even if I don’t want to hear music at that particular time when I’m outside, I still put my headphones on anyway because it acts like a muffler. It doesn’t arouse suspicion in anyone that I’m terrified and the headphones act as a barrier from the world physically as well as in my head, because you rarely interrupt someone who’s deep into listening to music. During these times I can breathe out fully, then regulate my breathing to be slower, calmer and deeper to enable me to relax, while I have my hands constantly in my pockets wiping away the sweat.
I was informed by a friend that specialises in anxiety, that when you’re scared for no reason then you’re not actually scared. It’s adrenaline rushing around your body so fast and from out of the blue, that it actually feels like you are scared. It feels like you’ve drunk five cans of Red Bull and you don’t know how to stop it or why you got like that in the first place. It’s like you’ve just comeback from a run or a session at the gym and you’re out of breath.
When that was explained to me, it made it so much easier to deal with. I’m not scared, I’m alive!
I’m just experiencing the same symptoms as if I was rationally anxious or ecstatic! The I.B.S is just an unwanted side effect, but now knowing that I don’t actually need the toilet because I’m not scared has made it a lot easier to teach myself that I can manage car journeys. Don’t get me wrong, my stomach still bloats and I still ride in a car without the lap belt across my stomach, but knowing that the car doesn’t need to stop whenever I pass a petrol station, or if I panic in a traffic jam. It’s made it all a lot easier to say, ‘Breathe; it’s ok; you’ve done this a thousand times. This isn’t scary’. I am also finding it’s exactly the same in a pub or a club, I can tell myself ‘You’ve done this thousands of times; you’re not scared. You don’t need alcohol!’
That side of me is still a struggle but I’ve fully taken advantage of bars with non-alcoholic beers and it is helping. I’m not saying that pubs and bars are the pinnacle of being a non-anxious person, but in my life they are common meeting spots for social events. I no longer need that crutch of alcohol to be able to have a good time. It’s incredibly hard, it really is, but I feel so much better for not drinking. Plus I’m saving so much more money; money I can use to go see my mates more and try new things that can bring a smile to my face. I’m now finding out what the sober, less-scared side of me likes to do and it’s interesting. I’m 26 years old and still discovering who I am.
My advice for social anxiety – and you’re probably sick of advice by now, is speak up! Let someone know what you’re going through. Chances are they are going through it too or know someone close who is going through it and feeling how you feel. If you speak up now you can get the help you need. Maybe that help is medication, maybe it is therapy or maybe you just need to be taught a few tactics for dealing with it. What I have found is even the basic ways of dealing with it can be effective. Techniques such as deep breathing, musical distraction etc.
Along the way you’ll find your own techniques on how to deal with social anxiety yourself. I even find wiping my face with a wet flannel lowers my racing heart and calms me down so fast I wish I could have a travel skin attached to my jeans. Importantly, DON’T suffer alone! The amount of help available is unbelievable! Use it! It’s like going to a fairground and there are no lines for the rides because nobody has admitted what’s going on and no-one else has turned up. The help is there for you if you just go for it.
The Panic Room offers counselling and advice services for people suffering from Social Anxiety. If you would like to find out more then please feel free to browse the website or book an appointment. Some helpful pages are ‘Is The Panic Room For Me?’ and ‘About The Panic Room’.