I wanted to share a topic that has been heavy on my heart and played a huge role in my life the last couple of years. That is social anxiety. I’m sure MANY of you can relate to experiencing anxiety in some form and this is specifically in relation to experiencing anxiety in social situations. It’s something that became more prominent in my late teenage years and early 20s. It was not always something as crippling as feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Many times, it was just an overwhelming feeling that would cause me to stress myself out and try to runaway from dealing with it.
I bet if you observed me in a social situation now, you wouldn’t guess that I’ve had to deal with this type of anxiety. You’d catch me smiling and being present in that moment. However, in the past year I have completely transformed my relationship with my anxiety.
I don’t think that there was one particular event or incident that contributed to my social anxiety escalating. I think it was just something that became more prevalent in my life over time. There were however, certain events in my life that may have contributed to it. In general, I was dealing with a lot of things at one time: financial struggles, unemployment, health related issues because of my PCOS, losing my cousin to suicide, and rediscovering myself after ending a long term relationship as well as losing a few friendships. During the time that all of these experiences were occurring simultaneously, I now realize how bad my social anxiety became.
I isolated myself from a lot of my relationships and avoided going out in general. I distinctly remember two occasions. One was where I was getting ready to go to a networking event on campus while I was attending grad school. I got ready even though I kept feeling anxious and as I was getting ready to head out, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “I can’t do this.” Then I changed and stayed home that night instead of going to what could have been a great opportunity to meet new people.
Another time I was searching for a great volunteering opportunity. I found an amazing program at a hospital working with newborn babies. It was extremely competitive and hard to get a spot in the program but I had heard back shortly after applying that they wanted to do an initial interview. Again, I remember driving and on the way there, I pulled over and called up the supervisor, lied and said that my car broke down and that I wouldn’t be able to make it for the interview.
I had done this multiple times before: cancelled appointments, cancelled plans with friends, would avoid going to a shopping center because it was too crowded for me, and specifically after I lost my cousin, I remember staying on my bed all day until the very last minute I had to get up and get ready for class while I was in graduate school.
So why am I talking about this? Because I am no longer this person! It took my a long time to get here but I am so damn proud of the person I chose to be and work on everyday. My hope is that if you need this change in your life as well: that you can work on making this happen.
There is no magic formula to making it happen but there were steps that overtime helped transform my anxiety. Don’t get me wrong: I still experience social anxiety, I’ve just become much better at coping with it.
Here’s what worked for me:
I became self-aware – It took me some time to develop self-awareness because I had a mental block. But you have to realize that you’re standing in your own way. If I didn’t go through with the plan with my best friend, then I wasn’t putting an effort in my friendship which actually was meaningful to me. The fear or whatever thought it was that made me feel like I couldn’t do it, was just a figment of my imagination. It was just an idea I had that I wasn’t good enough or capable enough.
Shut out the negative voice in your head and replace it with a stronger one – I do this now especially whenever I start to experience any kind of anxiety. I will hear my thoughts say, “Just cancel, you don’t have to go. You could just stay home.” I will now counteract it with “You’ll be happy that you went, you will be just fine.” This has helped me so much recently where I just redirect my thoughts each time. Sometimes if I’m headed somewhere and I’m still feeling a little bit anxious, I’ll listen to some music to calm me down.
Constantly remind yourself your goals – I developed a strong mental block because I was not reminding myself my goals and envisioning the person I wanted to be. Write out your goals, write out how you envision yourself to be, and remind yourself everyday what those goals are and how you’re going to work towards them. This is so important because then you will truly realize how giving in to your anxiety is holding you back from those goals. Focus on the things you can control and let go of things you cannot.
Take it one step at a time – I gave myself building blocks of things to overcome each time to cope with my anxiety. For example, I would make a plan and stick with it. I started off with one, then slowly started adding on more within the same time frame. For example, having one meeting a week to two or more. I didn’t push myself to a point where I felt like I was going to break. Since I did this gradually over time, each time just became easier and easier. It didn’t feel like I was throwing myself into the unknown so much and even if there was a sense of the unknown, that I’d be okay. Now I can have 3-5 different meetings/plans for the day and I’ll be just fine with getting from one to the next.
Get out there! – This is the only way you will really tackle your anxiety head on. You won’t be able to cope with it if you continue to avoid it and avoid any social situations that may aggravate it. When it does make you uneasy, you have to learn to redirect your thoughts and overcome that feeling.
The last thing I want to touch on that I believe helped me is my time working in sales. Working in sales has honestly helped me tremendously because it really pushed me to have to become more confident in not only selling the service but also in selling myself and my faith in delivering a great product. It was constant human interaction and learning to deal with different types of people. It was about having to “fake it till you make it” no matter what kind of day you were having. The lack of confidence really contributed to my anxiety getting worse over time. But working in sales helped reverse that. The point is, if you’re not confident enough in yourself you will have a tough time with coping with your anxiety.
I want to be realistic though, you will not wake up one day without anxiety. It’s not the case for me, I still experience it at times. However, I talk to myself (like a weirdo). I become fully aware of the negative thoughts and remind myself they’re just thoughts and not reality. But once I am in any social situation I just become my happy positive self and I no longer fixate on my anxiety but at being present in the moment. In fact, I end up being so thankful after the fact that I didn’t give in to the negative voice.
Remind yourself every time: you are capable, you are enough, and you are not alone. Journal your progress and you’ll be insanely proud of your own transformation. Keep shining.
All photos are courtesy of Unsplash