This post has been in the pipeline for months but I’ve kept putting it off. I just really didn’t (and still don’t) know where to begin. I’ll probably do a few different posts on this topic as there are so many elements and things affected by it.
Back in Autumn 2016 I was finally officially diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder, also sometimes called Social Phobia – looking back, I believe I have had it most of my life, probably since starting school as a small child. I had suspected for a couple of years prior to being diagnosed that I might have it and had researched and done various self-diagnosis tests which all said I did have quite a severe case of it. I didn’t want to be one of those ‘self-diagnosed hypochondriacs’ though so I just kept it to myself and carried on as I was, getting on with my course at university and, as I now realise, avoiding as many things as I possibly could that triggered my anxiety.
The catalyst to finally getting help and seeking a diagnosis was a conversation with my mum. She found me in my room crying after my sister, who didn’t mean any malice by it, asked why I was getting a lift to my friend’s house rather than driving myself. It was a good question. I passed my driving test first time in September 2012 but didn’t drive again for 4 years whilst I was at university. I started driving again once I’d left university in June 2016 and by September I had been practising my driving with my parents (with P plates on the car) but had yet to drive anywhere on my own. There was more to it than just a case of needing to get a feel for it again. I was very anxious before every drive and the thought of driving alone terrified me. A small part of it was fearing I might crash or hurt someone else but the thing that bothered me most was what other people were thinking of me. Did they think I was a good driver? What if I made a mistake, will they be angry at me? Will they beep at me? What if I panic and don’t know where I’m going and that annoys someone? Am I going too slow for them? I felt extremely self-conscious when I could see the driver behind me in my mirror – what were they thinking, was I doing anything wrong?
I have since learned that these thoughts are all classic Social Anxiety.
I was also struggling with searching for jobs, I was so picky of anything that sounded too high pressure or would require lots of social interaction (unfortunately for me a lot of jobs do) and just the thought of scrolling through career sites and reading job descriptions was enough to get my heart racing, temperature up and lose my appetite (it still does and I’m still not working but I’m hoping to start some volunteering next week). My mum encouraged me to get in contact with IAPT, where you can self-refer yourself without going through your GP. I might talk about the process of that and how I’m getting on with it in another post – please let me know if that’s something you’d be interested to read!
Rather than explain myself what Social Anxiety is and why anxiety happens, here are a couple of really helpful sheets that the therapist gave me. The one which talks about Social Anxiety I found incredibly relatable and it was quite a relief to know it wasn’t just me! The other sheet explains the Fight or Flight Response which is essentially what our body is going through when we experience anxiety in response to a perceived danger. So for people with anxiety disorders, they are experiencing exactly the same feelings when they face their trigger as they would if face to face with a tiger or bear.
It’s important to remember that absolutely everyone with an anxiety disorder experiences it differently as we all have different triggers and thought processes. It’s also important, especially for those without an anxiety disorder, to know that yes, we all do experience anxiety in life but having an actual disorder is different. Getting nervous before an interview or exam does not mean you can relate to someone with an anxiety disorder. As supportive as my friends and family have been, sometimes when I talk about things that make me incredibly fearful and they respond with “oh yeah, I get like that sometimes too” it can feel incredibly devaluing and like my anxieties are being trivialised. So, if someone does open up about their anxiety disorder please be mindful not to invalidate their struggles by trying too much to relate or empathise with them. The worst thing is feeling like you’re making a big fuss out of nothing and that everyone else in the world is just getting on with it and you’re not trying hard enough – that’s how I’ve felt for years.
I’ll touch upon some of my particular triggers. I could never possibly pin point or describe them all but I can think of some: being the centre of attention, being watched while I do something, meeting new people, talking to or being around authority figures, answering or making telephone calls, driving somewhere new by myself, bumping into someone and having to make small talk etc etc. The thoughts behind the situations that make me anxious tend to revolve around what other people think about me. I worry I might embarrass myself or make a mistake. I’m also very preoccupied with being liked and not being thought of in a negative way so I exhaust myself trying to keep up appearances and make sure everyone around me is happy and couldn’t possibly have anything bad to say about me. Constantly smiling and laughing is tiring when you’d rather be alone in bed with your cat.
I thought about going through all the stages of my life and writing about everything I struggled with throughout school, sixth form, employment and university up to now. That could be another post entirely though so please let me know if you’d find it helpful and/or interesting to read that too. It’d probably be interesting to write tbh because there’s probably a lot of things I did/avoided that at the time I didn’t realise was because of this disorder I had.
I’m still coming to terms with the whole ‘disorder’ thing! I don’t like thinking there’s something ‘wrong’ with me, as far as I’m concerned this is just me and this perspective is all I’ve ever known, and now apparently a lot of it is warped and wrong and unhelpful. But it’s held me back enough in my life so far so I guess the sooner I can overcome it the better. At this stage I’m not confident I’ll ever be ‘cured’ as such, but I do think I can learn to deal with it and slowly push myself, as I have already been doing.
Please let me know if you’d like a post on my therapy experience with IAPT and how it all works. And also if you’d like to read about my specific experiences and struggles from childhood up to now before I knew I ‘officially’ was a socially anxious human.
Love Nicole xxxx