I’ve had social anxiety disorder ever since I can remember. As a child I was extremely shy– I didn’t like talking to adults, I cried about going to school all the way through first grade, and I never make the first move when making a new friend. In elementary school, I was that kid who would have to go home at sleepovers often because I was so anxious I’d give myself a stomach ache. Before starting high school, my family moved from Los Angeles to San Diego. My freshman year, every morning before school, I would have a stomach ache.
I get extremely nervous about hanging out with new people, and spending time with acquaintances is very energetically taxing for me. I get overwhelmed easily in social situations. I don’t like being approached by people in public and I get really nervous when it happens– I think about how I won’t know what to say, how I just want to be left alone, how it’ll be awkward. I usually sat alone in class during college partly due to the fact that I didn’t want to spend my energy worrying about having a conversation with someone. But deep down, I do crave that easy connection with others.
Most people would never know that I struggle with this, and it’s really embarrassing for me to admit it. I can be really outgoing and I wouldn’t call myself socially awkward. In classes I would always be the first one to raise their hand and ask/answer a question, even in huge lectures of 200+ people. I have a good amount of close friends and family members, and I thrive in social situations where I’m comfortable. Over the years it’s been really frustrating and I’ve blamed myself–like why couldn’t I just be like other people? Other people have blamed me too, asking me why I was so shy or why I didn’t want to say hi to someone I knew. I’ve worked really hard at being more outgoing and I’ve made a lot of progress. I don’t think that the way I live my life is wrong– I’m happy with the relationships with my friends and family members that I do have and I probably wouldn’t even have time for more socialization. But I hate having to live like this–at the whim of my social anxiety. I hate having that fear. I’ve been told that I can seem unapproachable, distant, quiet, and stuck-up. The thing is though, I am none of these things. That’s my anxiety.
A few months after my mom got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the social anxiety got worse. I used to just feel uncomfortable in certain social situations, but after my mom got sick, it progressed into full on panic attacks. Before my mom got sick, I had never experienced a panic attack in my life. So I’ve deduced that the two are related. It got to the point where I would get panic attacks any time I had to leave my house. I hated being around people. It felt fake and I wanted nothing more than to escape. This was at the height of developing depersonalization disorder. But I continued to push myself no matter how uncomfortable it was. And it never got better until I started to get better.
After learning new coping mechanisms, starting medication, and lots of therapy, my anxiety is a lot better. I still have a lot of work to do though to get back to 100%. The thing is, I haven’t been living at 100% since I was a toddler. And the more I’ve lived, the more bad experiences that have happened to me, the worse it’s gotten.
We all have our vices. For some people, they work too hard, they overeat, they watch too much TV, they have body image issues, they get depressed. For me, I developed social anxiety. I believe that as human beings, we all react to fear in different ways. We use one thing to replace another. I developed a fear of other people to compensate for not feeling safe in my own life. I’ve discovered this on my grief journey and my anxiety journey.
Social anxiety is something that I literally have no control over. It’s a pattern my brain has developed over the years. My amygdala becomes hyperactive. My stress hormones skyrocket. It’s a physiological response to a perceived fear that I can’t stop. I’ve done cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for social anxiety and found that it had zero effect. Therapists told me, “Oh you just need to stay in the situation longer,” or “Oh you just need to give it more time.” More self blame. I’ve stayed in situations where I was uncomfortable for hours on end, and I’ve tried putting myself in similar situations over and over again. To no avail. Maybe I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with the anxiety and have come to the conclusion that I’ll always feel a little uncomfortable in social situations. But the anxiety never truly goes away.
What I’ve found has helped me is EMDR. I had a panic attack a couple of weeks ago during a social situation and my therapist and I talked about it. We then processed the memory with EMDR. The images that came up in my mind were feeling uncomfortable and like I didn’t want to be there, which led to an image of me getting dropped off at preschool and crying, holding onto my mom’s leg, and not wanting her to leave. Not wanting to be there. Feeling scared and uncomfortable. The next image that came into my mind was feeling devastated and sad and afraid that my mom isn’t here anymore. WHOA. It came full circle. I always knew that developing my anxiety disorder was related to losing my mom. It was right there under the surface. I really didn’t have to dig too far to find that. What shocked me was the relationship of me being a preschooler not wanting to leave my mom was related. I think that’s when I started having social anxiety.
My mom always told me that when I was about 2-3 years old, before my sister Rebecca was old enough to play with me (so I was basically an only child at that point), I’d stand outside by the gate of our house and yell, “Hi guys! GUYYYSSS!!! GUYYYYSSS!!!” at the neighbor kids playing outside, trying to get their attention. No signs of social anxiety yet. But then once I began preschool, it all started. Now that’s what I call a breakthrough.
This week, after that extremely enlightening therapy session, I noticed that the physical symptoms of my social anxiety (lightheadedness, detachment/feeling unreal, etc.) were gone. I went to a concert, went out to eat at restaurants, went to the grocery store, and much more without having a panic attack. These are things that after my mom got sick used to 85% of the time cause me to panic. I’m really excited at how things are progressing. I still have that nervous feeling when people I don’t know talk to me, so I still have more work to do. But I’m happy that I’ve started to figure things out, and maybe one day I’ll even be the social butterfly I was meant to be.