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Why Being in Public Feels Mentally Taxing When You Have Social Anxiety

I’ve been on a sort of journey lately, where I’ve begun to make the shift from acknowledging I have an anxiety disorder (and that it affects me greatly in everyday situations) to intentionally analyzing my anxiety disorder in relation to how it makes me think, feel and behave. As a result, I’ve often found myself teasing apart which thoughts, feelings, actions and preferences are caused by my anxiety disorder, and which ones are actually authentically my own, which has been surprisingly revealing.

Yesterday was one of those days when I took some time to think a little deeper about why I felt uncomfortable about something that is seemingly so simple and straightforward to so many other people. This time around, the simple task was: walking outside in public. I decided to renew my recreation center gym pass and start working out again, which is something I have been wanting to do for a while. This means, though, that I have to make the 20 minute walk to and from the community center each day, which is something I dread, no matter how irrational it may be.

I’ve long experienced discomfort with walking (or running or biking or existing) outside in public, but I’ve never taken the time to really analyze how mentally taxing it is to me. In short, I’m uncomfortable with it because I have social anxiety disorder and it makes me extremely self-conscious and uneasy in public spaces. Add to that my own personal insecurities about the way I look, and the possibility that, as a woman, I might be catcalled or otherwise harassed when I go outside and it feels like a recipe for disaster for me. I always have to convince myself to complete the simple task of walking alone outside, time and time again.

Yesterday morning, on the way to and from the gym, I was as uncomfortable as I usually am while walking to most places. But, I also realized I seem to have unspoken “rules” about what to do and what not to do when walking around in public, as I do for countless other situations or activities. I’ve also only just realized how much my mind races and how irrational these made-up rules really are. For some context, here are some of the guidelines that my socially anxious mind has developed, in order to avoid attention or embarrassment:

1. Cover your body as much as possible.

No matter what season it is, so people won’t notice any of those “problem areas,” and I won’t bring attention to yourself. This is actually probably my most problematic irrational thought. I know women — and people, in general — should be able to wear what they want to wear without having to worry about whether or not they are “bringing attention” to themselves or showing their bodies even when they are deemed “unattractive” to society, but I still find myself thinking that I should “cover up” to avoid attention.

2. Always walk with earbuds in.

That way, I won’t appear rude if someone says something and I don’t (or can’t) hear it and don’t respond. It’ll also help me to ignore any negative or unwanted attention from men. I don’t listen to music that’s too loud, though or I won’t hear what’s going on around me.

3. Avoid walking past certain groups of people.

I avoid groups of teenagers, outdoor patios, groups of men, bus stops, any area where large groups of people congregate and any areas where I’ve been subject to unwanted attention in the past.

4. Avoid eye contact.

Crosswalks are the worst, but I can’t really avoid them, so I just try to avoid eye contact with the people in the cars that can see me as I cross the street. And I cross quickly.

I first started being acutely aware of myself and how I was being perceived in public as a young child (around age 4 or 5). However, I had so many carefree moments as a child, which definitely included me not paying so much attention to what other people thought as I walked home from school or spent my summer days outside. It was also rare that I was unaccompanied as a child, and I usually had at least one friend around when I was outside playing, which made me feel less insecure about any attention being focused on me. But, by the time I was approaching those preteen years, I’d become severely uncomfortable with being outside in public by myself, for fear of negative judgment. And, that’s when all of these weird rules started to form in my head. As a teenager, I remember asking for rides from my parents to get to places that would have been easy to reach just by walking (I asked my mom for rides home from high school even though it was right down the street from where I lived). Walks to and from anywhere felt like an activity during which I would have to navigate a minefield of possible “negative events” — anything that could cause me to feel nervous or embarrassed (which often doesn’t take much for a person with social anxiety disorder).

As for my walk to the gym yesterday morning, my thoughts raced from the moment I left my mom’s apartment to the moment I got home again. I’ve never really outlined my thought process during something so simple as a 20 minute walk, but I figured I would do so here, so that maybe any potential readers can understand or relate to what it can be like for a person with social anxiety disorder to simply carry on with trying to mind their own business while walking down the street. So, here goes:

I left the house feeling happy about how beautiful it was outside and how much cooler it felt outside than it did inside the apartment. I was happy with myself for getting up early enough so I could just enjoy my walk to the gym without having to “worry” about being noticed by or running into a lot of people. Although I love being out when no one else is from a social anxiety perspective, I also just enjoy how quiet it usually is in the mornings. Five minutes into my walk, I started thinking about my clothes and how they looked on me. I was wearing an old t-shirt and felt self-conscious about the design on the front of it and whether or not it looked “weird.” I thought about the fact that, next time, I would wear a different shirt. When I got to an intersection where construction work was being done, I noticed there were three men standing in the middle of the street, working on repairing something and I felt anxious about whether or not they were looking at me as I was standing at the crosswalk. Once I began to walk through the park, I saw exactly one person — an elderly woman — walking towards me. I told myself to try my hardest to smile, look her in the eye and say “good morning.” Something relatively simple, right? But, as I got closer to her, I smiled weakly and mumbled a “hello,” and then my eyes darted to the ground before I could even determine whether or not she said hello back to me. Later, when I got to an intersection and was waiting to cross the street, a man that I didn’t know waved at me from across the street and smiled almost affectionately, which unsettled me a little. I smiled back quite awkwardly, and then questioned whether or not I should have done so. Then, I went inside of the recreation center.

On the way back home, I looked sweaty and tired, and I was definitely acutely aware of it. But, what was bothering me most was I needed to stop at two stores on the way back, and I kept thinking about how I didn’t want to be out in public doing errands while looking the way I did (sweaty, in baggy clothes, with no makeup on, etc.) I should also note here that it makes me self-conscious to be dressed up and/or looking nicer than I usually do, in public). When I stopped by the local grocery store, I noticed a man that my stepfather had introduced me to just a week ago, and I hesitated about whether or not to say, “hi” to him. I questioned whether or not he recognized me, and decided only to smile at him in attempt to be friendly. But, I immediately wondered whether or not I had seemed rude instead. As I carried the grocery bags home, I started feeling guilty about feeling so anxious about everything. I thought to myself about how nice of a day it was outside and how I shouldn’t be in such a rush to get home, or, at least, how nice it would be to simply enjoy the process of arriving to my destination. I also thought about how I shouldn’t feel like I have to have my earbuds in all of the time and how nice it would be to enjoy the sounds around me, as well as the sights. I questioned over and over, in such a short period of time, why I would still have so much trouble with being self-conscious about such a small and insignificant thing as walking somewhere. From there, my thoughts spiraled into wondering about whether or not I was getting any better at handling or managing my social anxiety disorder. I started to feel negative about my future. And then, I arrived home.

Now that I have had time to think about yesterday’s events, I feel slightly better about things. Despite the surprising amount of thoughts that go through my head when I’m out in public minding my own business, it has become somewhat easier to deal with as I get older. I’ve also pretty much abandoned the idea that I will “beat” or “overcome” my social anxiety disorder (thanks to the counseling I’ve received in the past months). Instead, I now try to focus on challenging the irrational thoughts I have each day.

For now, challenging my thoughts feels like a challenge at best and a chore at worst. It can be mentally exhausting to have so many racing thoughts go through your head in the first place, but challenging them and/or talking through them and trying to counteract them with a calm and rational inner voice can also be exhausting. I believe it will be worth it in the end, though. And so, for me, the walks to the gym (and anywhere else I want to go) will continue and I will also continue to try to challenge my irrational thoughts.

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Thinkstock photo via bowie15.