There was a time in my life when it was extremely difficult to do almost anything that involved social interaction. When I was a kid, I was always sort of quiet and shy, but it was nothing too abnormal. As I got older, however, I found it increasingly difficult to make friends and I had very little confidence. By the time I reached middle school, I was miserable and begging my mom to homeschool me. I was desperate to get away from all the social pressure. After debating for awhile, my mom agreed to my request. Neither she nor I really knew what was going on with me at the time, and homeschooling was convenient for our military family, who had to move every couple of years. So, I succeeded in easing some anxiety by doing my school work at home with my mom and sister. Fast forward a few years, and I found myself dreading any activity with other kids my age. My mom wanted my sister and I to get involved with homeschool groups for P.E. and other classes, and I hated it. I would sit in the corner during activities, trying to avoid ever having eyes on me. I was a loner, an outsider. Not because I thought I was too good for everyone, but because I thought I could never be good enough to be included with others. I didn’t really have friends, and I became more and more lonely as time went on. However, my anxiety about social interaction had begun taking control of my life, forcing me to remain in isolation.
In high school, in addition to the school work I did at home, I took a few classes at public schools for subjects my mom couldn’t teach me, like chemistry, and my worst nightmare: communications.
Any time I had to go to these classes, I was an anxious wreck. Every week, when I walked into the building where chemistry class was held, I felt like I was walking to my certain doom. I got hot and lightheaded at the thought of answering a question in front of the class, being asked to write a problem on the board, or just participating in small talk with classmates. When I took my SATs, I was sick to my stomach from the anxiety– but not because of the test; because I was terrified at the thought of simply walking into a classroom while kids I didn’t know looked at me.
The worst experience I had in a class, however, was in my junior year communications class. We had an assignment where we got cards with the name of a random object on them and had to improvise a sales pitch as if we were trying to get the class to buy the object. When it was my turn, I gave a pitch for what I thought the word on my card was, when I had actually confused it for another word. When I finished the pitch, there was a brief silence before my teacher made a joke about my confusion, I realized my mistake, and the entire class laughed at me. It was the most humiliating thing. I felt so stupid. I sat down and tried to look busy for the rest of the class while I hid tears behind my binder. I couldn’t stop the scene of what had happened from replaying in my head. The looks on my classmate’s faces. The mocking tone from my teacher. The vicious self-loathing thoughts, repeating in my mind.
I’m so stupid. I’m an idiot. I’m an embarrassment. Everyone thinks I’m dumb.
This is about the time when my social anxiety went from a snowball rolling slowly downhill to a full-blown avalanche. I began to have those relentless repetitive thoughts and feelings of humiliation, not just when something understandably embarrassing happened, but after every interaction with another person. I was terrified to speak to others, or ever bring attention to myself, and after every time I did, I was convinced I had totally blown it. I perceived every word and action from others as hints that they thought I was a fool. I was anxious about every event, every gathering, every conversation. I regretted every move I made. I was embarrassed by my own existence.
For a long time, I lived my life like a tumbleweed, being thrown around by the wind, not really going anywhere. My anxiety was in control, keeping me back from everything I wanted. Every day I had one goal: just get through one more day of the dread, fear, embarrassment, and loneliness. Then I could go back to hiding away in my bed. I was starting to think this was all life could be. I had a family that loved me, that I knew would help if they knew what was happening with me, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak about it. I was too anxious, and like everything else, I was embarrassed by it. I felt stuck.
I continued like this until I finally realized that I had no choice anymore. I couldn’t keep living this way. I was starved for the connection I hadn’t had with another person in so long. I was desperate for hope, for the ability to breathe in deeply and feel okay. For the chaotic thoughts to quiet down. For the shaking of my hands to become steadiness. I needed, wanted to ask for help.
I saw my opportunity with a routine doctor’s appointment coming up. I decided that this was my chance to let someone know I needed a hand up- someone who might understand. I knew that doctors always ask, when they’ve done all their routine checks, if there’s anything else that you need addressed before they go. This was when I took my shot. I knew I would be far too anxious to get words to come out, so I pulled out a crumpled Post-It note from my pocket where I had written down my symptoms of social anxiety, and handed it to my doctor. She read it all and her face was kind and sympathetic as she asked me some additional questions to rule out other mental illnesses. She told me she was going to give me a referral to see a therapist, and, with my permission, helped me talk to my mother about what I was dealing with. My anxiety was certainly high from talking about my problem for the first time with someone, but I was also feeling something new.
This is when the healing started. But it wasn’t a straight, smooth path. It was rough. Showing up to therapy was hard. Doing my therapy “homework” was hard. Opening up was hard. Trying new things was hard. But staying where I was was harder, so I kept going forward.
I learned that it does get better, but only when you do the scary thing and let your struggle be known, ask for the help you need, and then fight like hell. I did worksheets and breathing exercises and practice conversations with my therapist. I tried many medications and dealt with the unpleasant side effects before finding one that helped. I had to learn how to calm my body down when I was needlessly panicking. I had to work through the negative thoughts that had become ingrained in my brain. I had to learn to question my fear and think rationally. I had to learn to see myself as equal, not inferior to others. And it took time.
There were moments I would get frustrated at the lack of progress I seemed to be making. I would question my therapist, “I’m doing all the things I’m supposed to, so why am I not getting better?” And she would tell me that I was, but “getting better” might not look how I expected it to. My getting better wasn’t a quick, huge spike of confidence and inner peace. It came in slow changes. It was noticing that I was sitting comfortably in my therapist’s office rather than all scrunched up on the chair. It was the gradually lower numbers when I got my blood pressure and heart rate taken. It was driving and not worrying about who was looking at me when I was the first car stopped at a stoplight. It was being able to question my negative self-talk instead of always letting it defeat me. It was getting back up after every fall.
Source: Project Heal
There was no quick fix, no clear guide or easy answer for how to overcome my social anxiety. There never is for mental illness, is there? And that frustrated me for a long time. But there’s something to be said for the value of how the healing process forces you to slow down, embrace the journey, and learn a lot about yourself. And it’s so worth it.
My social anxiety was a stubborn illness to fight, and I don’t know if I could ever call myself “cured,” as I believe a smaller, more normal degree of social anxiety will probably continue to pop up on occasion, but I actually, finally feel free. I am happier, healthier, calmer, and more confident today than I ever thought I could be. I’m no longer just surviving, I’m living. I initiate conversations and can be bold in groups of people. I make jokes and laugh hard. I say what I want to say. I graduated high school. I got a job. I got another job. I took college classes. I fell in love and got married. The right therapist, the right medication, self calming techniques, natural remedies, supportive friends, pushing myself to do scary things, online resources, working through irrational thoughts, meditation, affirmations– all of these are what got me here. All of these are what helped me overcome social anxiety.
I didn’t even really notice it happening. I was so frustrated with how stuck I felt in my anxiety, but I was determined to keep fighting it, so I did. Then I woke up one day and looked around at my life and realized I was okay. More than okay. Happy.
If you’re struggling with social anxiety, or with any mental illness, I just want to encourage you that it’s still possible to not just survive, but thrive. I know it sounds cliché. I know I don’t know your story, your circumstances. But I really believe in you, stranger on the internet. I really do.
Healing is possible. Your mental illness is not your death sentence. Fight, and choose to have hope.