10 Things I've Learned From 10+ Years of Living With Social Anxiety
I have social anxiety. You probably wouldn’t guess that upon first meeting me, or even after knowing me for a while. That’s because I’ve had social anxiety since I was 13 years old, and now being 25, I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to cope with it.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, social anxiety is a disorder characterized by experiencing irrational or exaggerated anxiousness when being, or anticipating being, in social settings. Some people have very intense social anxiety — for others, it’s not as severe.
Everyone’s experience with social anxiety is different, and from my own experience, I want to share my 10 takeaways from over a decade of living with social anxiety.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. My identity is not my social anxiety.
This has become my banner of truth as someone with social anxiety, because coming to terms with this has changed everything for me. While again, everyone’s experience is unique, I’ve personally found (through a lot of counseling and healing relationships) that so much of my social anxiety was stemming from a deep, self-hating insecurity. This first point is crucial to get in order to understand the rest of what I’m about to share!
2. Social anxiety can be a symptom of insecurity, low self-esteem and low self-worth.
When I first developed social anxiety as a teen, my confidence and self-worth plummeted. My embarrassment over things like turning red when getting called on by a teacher morphed into a hatred of myself entirely. My anxiety told me I wasn’t a person worth knowing, and I was better off being invisible to the world. It wasn’t until I realized how much damage my anxiety had done and how much insecurity it had created that I was truly able to start improving it.
3. I can’t always control my social anxiety, but I can control my perspective of it.
One of the most helpful ways I learned to cope with having social anxiety I learned in my college speech class. On the first day, the professor eased our nervous minds by explaining why so often people blush, tremble or sweat when speaking in public. From an evolutionary standpoint, when humans perceive an external threat, our bodies are wired to prepare us either to fight or flee by increasing heart rate and readying our muscles. Whether facing a lion or an audience, the body’s biological response to stress is the
same: preparation to survive. All the physical displays of my anxiety that I hated so much — the pounding heart, twitching muscles and blushing face — actually wasn’t my body plotting against me; it was my body trying to prepare me for the task at hand. That shift in perspective made a huge difference in how I thought about my anxiety, giving me reassurance that I wasn’t “crazy.”
4. Social anxiety can be improved.
I am living proof that it is possible to get better at managing social anxiety. It may look like counseling, medication, exposure therapy, journaling, using a stress ball or a host of other things, but what’s important is talking with a professional about what options might be best for you. And if one method isn’t effective, don’t give up! What’s helpful for one person may not be what works for another. Just make sure to take your time and celebrate each small step of improvement.
5. It’s hard to make friends when you have social anxiety, but it is possible.
Having deep insecurity about myself on top of having social anxiety, I not only was fearful of forming friendships; I didn’t think I was deserving of them. What it took to finally change that was a group of golden-hearted individuals who saw the worth in me and wouldn’t let me stay isolated. When it comes to having social anxiety and making friends, working through the anxiety is important. But what was equally important in my case was breaking down the additional barriers of low self-esteem and insecurity that were further blocking those friendships from forming.
6. Having a support system is invaluable.
Everyone needs to have people they can lean on, and while it may sound contradictory, this is especially true for people with social
anxiety. As I wrote in a post entitled, “How Social Anxiety Brought Me Closer to My Mom,” I’ve discovered how invaluable it is to have people in my life who can remind me of who I am on days when social anxiety is getting me down. Even though I no longer find my sense of identity in my anxiety, there are still times I’m tempted to give into its belittling criticisms. Those in my support system though, because they know me inside and out, are good at recognizing when this is happening and know how to speak the truth I need to turn me back around.
7. Having social anxiety does not mean you are a broken person.
There are days you’ll beat yourself up inside for avoiding another social event. You’ll feel like hiding forever after thinking you made a fool of yourself during a conversation. And you’ll have moments where all you can do is scream inside your head, What is wrong with me!? These things are inevitable, but hear me — you are not broken for having social anxiety. You are a beautiful person with so many amazing attributes, passions and skills. Yes, it’s easy to think social anxiety makes you flawed because so many normal things are anything but normal for you. The truth is, everyone has flaws. No one is perfect. But the level of comfort you feel around other people does not make you a broken person.
8. Social anxiety is not something everyone will eventually “grow out of.”
When I first started experiencing the onset of my anxiety early in my teen years, there were well-meaning family members who tried to encourage me out of my despair by telling me, “You’ll grow out of that eventually.” Twelve years later and now at the age of 25, I am still waiting for the day I finally grow out of my social anxiety completely. Truthfully, my social anxiety has improved over time, but it wasn’t merely because of the passage of time itself. I’ve been really intentional in facing my anxiety head-on and doing the hard work required to lessen the control it has over me. It’s never something I would have simply “aged out” of.
9. Social anxiety is not just emotional; it’s biological, too.
Although I’ve come a long way in being able to manage my anxiety from a mental standpoint, there are physical manifestations of my anxiety I simply can’t control. Even at this point in my life with my social anxiety at the best place it’s ever been, my body still predictably responds to social stress by producing blotchy redness in my cheeks, elevated blood pressure, my pounding heart in my chest and muscle spasms in my facial muscles. As my college speech professor taught me, human bodies are designed to react to stress not just emotionally, but physiologically. It’s evidence that social anxiety is not just “all in your head.” I feel its presence in every part of my body.
10. Social anxiety can point you to your greatest strengths.
I will never be a natural speaker. Talking in front of others, no matter what the size of the group, will always come with a certain
level of automatic discomfort and anxiety for me. Society would like me to believe that because I am not a leader or not outgoing, my contribution to the world is less than those who possess these characteristics. However, this is not true at all. I am a reserved introvert who fears being within a 50 mile radius of the center of attention, but I have been told more times than I can count that I am an exceptional listener who people feel comfortable opening up to. I’d rather ask questions to understand someone else’s views than loudly voice my own opinions. There is such strength in being a quiet person and I’ve only been able to realize this since accepting this is how I am — and it is not a bad thing (see point number seven).
I was genetically predisposed to develop social anxiety during my lifetime. It has caused me immense frustration, embarrassment, heartache and pain, but out of it all has grown a confident young woman who knows who she is. I am not my social anxiety. My message to others struggling with social anxiety is that we are more than our anxiety, and it is worth the effort it takes to come to a place where you can really believe this about yourself. Because when you do, your life can truly change.
In time, you’ll begin to find your voice — as I am finally now finding mine.
This story originally appeared on Prayers of a Daisy.
Unsplash photo via Jon Chambers