Thursday, 3 May 2018

My Tips For Living With Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is something I've lived with for most of my life.

I don't recall any time in my life where I haven't felt uncomfortable and on edge around other people.

It's hard to describe how social anxiety affects a person to somebody who hasn't experienced it - I often think that people use the words "social anxiety" to describe simple shyness or social awkwardness, but for sufferers it can go so much deeper than that. It's almost impossible to cover it all in a single post as there can be so many layers to it.

As with most mental health issues, social anxiety will be a different experience for every sufferer - but from a personal point of view, it's best described as a constant feeling of unease and uncertainty.

I'm not exactly shy - not anymore, at least. I have suffered in the past with extreme shyness, but although I'd still hate to be the center of attention in any social situation, I do feel more able to speak to others and make conversation now than I have in the past.

Instead, for me it's more about what's happening inside than you what might see on the outside.

I may look and sound like anybody else when you see me out and about. You may not be able to tell at all that my social anxiety is at its worst.

But inside, the running commentary in my head that never truly switches off will be in full swing...

Why did you say that?! You're panic-babbling. Word vomit! Just stop.
This person thinks you're an idiot/rude/insensitive. 
Say something funny! That wasn't funny, they didn't laugh - oh no, maybe they really dislike you! They think you're weird. You ARE weird. 
You're not talking enough. 
You're talking too much!

It's an endless diatribe from within. A constant second guessing of every single thing I say or do. A persistent worry that I'm not saying the right thing, not reacting in the right way, not doing enough, or doing too much.

And that's just during the socialising activity itself.

The worst part of social anxiety really kicks in before and after the event.

Before hand I'll worry myself sick over what might happen during whatever the social event is - I panic about who'll be there, who I'll know, who I can talk to, whether anybody will talk to me, what I'll do if nobody does.  I'll worry myself sick about what to wear, how to act, where to stand.
I'll need to know exact specific details so that I can feel mentally prepared for it - I can't "wing" anything - I need to know where the entrance is, I need to know what time something will start and end, I need to know what the lay out is like inside, if I'm meeting someone I need to know EXACTLY where they'll be.

Sometimes I'll try to plan out topics to talk about in case of the dreaded Silent Moments. Sometimes I'll practise my laugh in the mirror to make sure it's "right".
Sometimes I'll work myself so much that I'll have a panic attack the night before, or I'll be sick with nerves.

And the after - well that's the MOST fun of all. Replaying every single conversation in my head, over and over and over. Panicking that I said or did something wrong. Convincing myself that I've offended someone. Beating myself up about it. Cringing with embarrassment at something that seems so huge to me, but in reality was something the other person didn't even notice.

That's just a little insight in to living with social anxiety - I could write for hours about the different ways it affects me and still not even scratch the surface.

It's exhausting to live with. Believe me, I know.

But the thing - life does have to go on. And as difficult as it can truly be to get out there and enjoy life when you're living with social anxiety, it has to be done. And over the years, I've found various little ways to make that easier to do.

So today, I thought I'd share them with you.

1) Start Small

A lot of people will try to tell you that you "Just need to push yourself out of your comfort zone" and "Not let anxiety win" - and while it's easy to see why they think this might be helpful, in my experience - it rarely is.
If I try to do something too big or frightening to me, I will work myself up in to a state and end up in far too much of a mess to enjoy the experience.
Instead I find that taking smaller steps is more useful. So instead of signing myself up to go to a huge blog conference, I'd go to a smaller local one first and work my way up to the big ones.
 Instead of trying to go out and socialise with a bunch of people, I'd try and arrange something in a smaller group first.
There's nothing wrong with taking baby steps and figuring out what you can do to ease your anxiety, even if only slightly.

2) Try Tapping

I first came across Tapping for anxiety management when I did my Fear of Flying course last year, I'd never even heard of it before then. As I sat in that room and watched the video demonstrating people using this technique, I thought it looked ridiculous and I had no doubt in my mind that it would never work for me! How on Earth could tapping on various points of your body do anything at all to ease feelings of anxiety?

Well, in all honesty I'm not sure how or why it works. But I can confirm that, for me at least, it DOES work.

I now use tapping for all sorts of anxiety driven scenarios - when I experience panic attacks, I tap. When I feel worried about something, I tap. And when I experience feelings of social anxiety, I tap. And it really does help.

I'm going to do a YouTube video about tapping soon, but until then - take a look at this which explains it in more detail:

3) Try Mind-Quieting Techniques

I had honestly never heard of mind-quieting until I stumbled across a mention of it at random in a book I'm currently reading. Upon further investigation, I realised it was EXACTLY what I needed.

My mind is a noisy place. There is never a single second that passes by where my inner voice is not worrying about something. EVER.

The art of mind-quieting is to attempt to achieve some time where your mind is absolutely still, calm and silent. Which sounds impossible, right?!

But it's not. It's actually achievable. And let me tell you, it is both BLISSFUL and also slightly unnerving to experience a completely quiet mind when you're so used to constant noise!

The way to achieve this is quite easy - set aside some time where you're alone, and are not likely to be disturbed.

Then just sit and observe each thought as you have it.

As each thought comes in to your mind, notice it...but don't embellish upon it. Don't allow your mind to wander with it. Just notice the thought, and then it slip away.

I find it helpful to visualise the thought floating away from me, like a cloud.

It goes something like this:

"I've just thought about candy floss. Ok, I notice that thought. Now Its gone."...and then you wait for the next thought. You don't indulge the thought about Candy floss in the manner you usually don't engage with it and think on it, and allow to melt away into another thought and then another and then another.

After doing this a couple of times, you will suddenly notice that there's a second or so where there are NO THOUGHTS.

Of course, as soon as you notice this...then you automatically fill your mind with the noise of your thoughts again, as you panic and think "Oh my god, there was no thought then! My mind was quiet!" - but for a few seconds, eventually, you will experience total quietness of the mind.

And the more you practise this, the longer those periods of quiet will last. And this can be very useful when you start to experience feelings of social anxiety - particularly in the Before & After event phases. Take yourself back to that Quiet Mind place, and stop those noisy thoughts for a while.

4) Make Online Connections

It can be incredibly daunting trying to make friends and connect with people in the real world when you have social anxiety.

One of the many reasons that I am SO thankful for the existence of the internet. At one time there was a huge stigma about "Online friendships" and how valid they were, but I think we've all moved past that now and have come to realise that the internet can be an incredibly useful tool in opening up opportunities for friendships with people we may otherwise never have met.

It's also a very useful way for social anxiety sufferers to take the first steps toward meeting new people and forming friendships. It's inevitably easier to communicate online when you're a social anxiety sufferer - you can think about what you're saying before you say it, you have that degree of distance which can be calming and you have the option to log off when you want to.

I personally found the website MeetUp to be really useful - through it I found a group of local anxiety sufferers who regularly arrange social events such as trips to the cinema or nature walks. If you're going to try to socialise and step outside your comfort zone, then starting with people who truly get it is ideal!

5) Consider CBT

I know how annoying it can be when you're told to try therapy - particularly CBT. Everyone suggests it, and most of the time you've either tried it already or you just really don't WANT to try it for whatever reason.

I get it. I've been there. Sometimes I still AM there.

But sometimes, CBT can surprise you. Sometimes, particularly for social anxiety, it can be helpful. And you can learn techniques that you can carry with you for the future.

It might not be a cure all, but it might just help a bit. So I do think it's worth a try.

I accessed CBT sessions free of charge through the NHS Depression & Anxiety service, which is a self referral service. Ask your GP for details of your local service or have a look on Google.

Do you have any tips to share to help fellow social anxiety sufferers live and enjoy life a little more comfortably? If so, please share them in the comments below.

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