Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Social Anxiety: The Learning Stage

The past couple of years of my life have been some of the most rewarding and exciting yet some of the most stressful. Towards the end of last year especially, I’d been noticing a decline in the normal capabilities of my brain, or as I realised, my mental health. I resolved to work out what was wrong with my ailing brain, and set off on a journey of careful research and introspection. Long story short – and I say that with no exaggeration – I discovered what it was: social anxiety disorder.

It’s important to note that I didn’t pick a disorder out of a hat. This was a thorough, objective mission to find out what was making normal daily functioning difficult for me. I was reluctant to admit even to myself that I had an anxiety disorder – not because of any associated stigma, but because of the ignorant people who trivialise mental health issues by bragging about having them (example: “I like even numbers! I’m sooooo OCD!”). If you don’t know much about social anxiety disorder, check out this fact sheet here.

So anyway, there I was, having finally found the answer. It was profoundly relieving, and also daunting. A brand new mission began: conquer this social anxiety!

One time I was talking to someone about my plans for world domination. “How are you going to conquer the world?” they asked.
I thought for a moment. “First by understanding it,” I replied.

I was joking about dominating the world, mostly obviously but that conversation came to mind when I thought about this new challenge. The first key step to conquering something is in understanding how it works. And not just a surface knowledge, but a deep and detailed understanding of it. The next step to conquering, after understanding, is to take action.

At the moment I’m in the learning and understanding stage. My social anxiety is much more complex and deep-rooted than I perhaps at first anticipated, but I’ve found that challenges can be enjoyable if I view them as opportunities to work on building positivity and resourcefulness. I also love learning new stuff about pretty much anything, so for me the learning stage is the fun stage.

And I have learned a lot, a ridiculous amount in fact, in the relatively short space of time that I’ve been aware of the anxiety. Things make so much more sense to me now. I now know why I feel so inexplicably nervous, awkward, scrutinised, ashamed, self-conscious, tongue-tied, or just plain uncomfortable in so many normal social situations. I now know why I find socialising and meeting new people so difficult and stressful, even though I love people and really want to connect with them. I now know why I get so panicky before I go anywhere or approach someone or initiate a conversation or make a phone call. I now know why I overanalyse all my interactions and agonise over the mistakes I assume I’ve made and get frustrated with myself for how socially inept I feel.

But most importantly, I also now realise how irrational and unhelpful all of that negative thinking is. It’s like I’ve had a monster lurking in my bedroom, but then I’ve switched the light on and discovered that the monster’s bark is worse than its bite, and that it’s really not that big, powerful, or scary after all. Switching the light on my thoughts and exposing them for how irrational they really are has helped put everything in perspective, and has even added a good dose of humour to the learning process.

I try to verbalise my thoughts more often these days, which shines the light on them even more clearly. For example, one time I went shopping with my mum, and as we pulled up in a busy carpark I said uneasily, “Everyone stares at me when I go out in public.” But no sooner had the words left my mouth than it hit me how unrealistic that statement was, and how funny it was that I actually believed it. A lot of my anxieties really are paper tigers, and it’s often surprising how not taking myself too seriously can work so well.

I have a long way to go and I know the process of conquering my social anxiety will be difficult and uncomfortable. But living a life that’s largely governed by irrational fear and regret is something worth fighting to escape from.

ENDNOTE: I’ve written solely about my experience with social anxiety, so someone else with this same disorder might have a completely different experience. Everyone is different so this post isn’t meant to describe social anxiety in general. It’s just my story so far. Thanks for reading.

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