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Living with social anxiety

This page created September 2003
By Catherine (ADAVIC Volunteer )

A Personal Story

I was always a shy, quiet kid. In fact, I had to repeat my first year of kinder because I wouldn't talk to the other kids! I don't remember feeling awkward or anxious around others while I was younger. During puberty, there were so many changes going on in my body, my mind and my life and I became depressed and even more withdrawn than usual. I think that I developed social anxiety around this time. I didn't know there was such a thing as social anxiety until a couple of years ago, so I spent many of my teenage years in tears, confusion and anger. I felt like a freak, and believed I was destined to remain a miserable outcast for the rest of my life.

I hated going out because the mere thought of social situations made me extremely anxious and consequently, I stayed home a lot of the time, where I felt comfortable and safe. When I left the house, I felt as though people were looking at me and judging me negatively, which made me feel extremely self-conscious. I worried about what questions they would ask me and whether I would be able to answer without my voice shaking and my face turning red.

I rarely went to parties and other social events; I would have loved to but the thought of meeting new people scared me. When introducing myself to others, I could barely talk; it felt as though my throat was closing up. All I wanted to do was escape the situation, to be anywhere else but there. It got to the point where even going places most people don't think twice about going to - such as the supermarket or going outside to collect the mail - caused me to feel afraid and I avoided these situations as much as possible. I became focussed on the belief that I'd remain single for the rest of my life because I couldn't go out.

I was so scared of being embarrassed or looking stupid that I felt insecure and out of place while in the company of others. I couldn't relax. My heart would race and I'd feel nauseas. I knew my anxiety was irrational and didn't make logical sense, but I couldn't shake the way I felt. I experienced frequent headaches, which were probably due to stress caused by feeling so anxious about, and isolated from, those around me.

My first year of uni was difficult. I moved out of home, from the country to Melbourne, and was living on campus at a student village. I will forever remember those six months as some of the worst of my life. I didn't socialise at all, staying in my room and more often than not, crying to my mother or best friend on the phone. At this stage I was still not aware of social anxiety, so I was extremely confused, lonely and angry.

I dreaded going to uni. I felt uncomfortable in classes; I was afraid the teacher would ask me to speak in front of the entire group. I knew I would hesitate, my face would turn red, I wouldn't know what to say, and everyone would witness my embarrassment and humiliation. I'd worry about giving class presentations for days and nights beforehand, analysing and over-exaggerating what might happen.

I felt insecure around groups of people. While they would be talking and socialising, I would barely say a word. I was afraid of speaking because I didn't want to be the centre of attention; I felt people would be judging me, thinking negative thoughts about me. As you can tell, my self-esteem was pretty low. I was able to talk to people one-on-one, but not in group situations. If I had something to contribute to a conversation, I would suppress my thoughts and keep quiet for fear of negative evaluation. Even now in group situations, I tend to be quiet and find it difficult to join in conversation; perhaps I have become so used to not saying anything in these circumstances in the past that it's second nature for me to say nothing.

Going out to eat was a major issue for me. I was afraid everyone was watching me, staring and judging. During the day at uni I would get hungry, but wouldn't eat anything for fear of people looking at me. I'd wait until I got home and felt sick from not having eaten when I should have.

I was far too concerned with others' perceptions of me. I tended to evaluate myself on how I thought others saw me and lost sight of the person I believed myself to be. I gave my irrational thoughts much more power than they deserved. I found it difficult to accept the fact that other people had opinions of their own; not everyone I met would like me. This was a difficult fact for me to face because I had a need to be viewed positively by everyone I came into contact with.

My anxiety about social situations was so strong that it was interfering with my ability to lead a normal life. It was on my mind every minute of the day. I'd wake up feeling anxious, which continued for most of the day, depending on whether I had to go out or not. I desperately wanted to be able to go out, relax, and enjoy myself in the company of others. I wanted to be able to wake up without a feeling of dread as to what the day would bring. Although I recognised my anxiety was excessive and unreasonable, I was at a loss as to how to control it.

Upon discovering that social anxiety existed, and figuring out I was suffering from the condition, I took steps to take back control of my life. I began seeing a psychiatrist who has helped me, through cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation techniques and medication, to become a much happier, positive person who can approach the social world with greater ease. My anxiety is not gone forever, nor do I think it will ever be. I have, however, learned how to change my cognitions so that I can deal with my fears more realistically.

The cognitive behavioural therapy involved me doing 'tasks', deliberately putting myself in situations I would normally avoid like the plague. These tasks started off small, such as taking public transport and making eye contact with someone, saying hello and asking them how their day had been. This progressed into bigger tasks, such as going out to eat at a restaurant, alone. As I accomplished my goals, I felt much better; I was learning to overcome fears I had been carrying with me for years.

For those suffering anxiety, I know how painful it is to live a life of such intense fear that you just want it all to end. But anxiety doesn't have to rule your life. Two years ago I would never have imagined I could feel as good about myself and my life as I do now. Sure, I still experience anxiety, but the difference is, my anxiety no longer completely controls me: I have learned how to control it. Discovering I had a problem and seeking help has been the best thing that's ever happened to me and has changed my life.

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