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The Unexpected Parts of Social Anxiety

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I did not expect my anxiety to slowly take over every part of my life, but it did.

Even now, five years after my first panic attack in the band room of my high school, whenever I think of social anxiety I mainly think about cliches: someone huddled in a corner at a party, a panic attack in a mall, crying in the bathroom before a school presentation. I have been in all three of those situations, but those are the areas of my daily routine I expected my social anxiety to creep into.

The first time I felt that familiar panic grip my stomach when the phone rang, I was more surprised than anything. The first time I heard a knock on the door when my brother’s friends came over and immediately had a panic attack in response to the sound, I remember reminding myself to breathe but also wondering why I was panicking. The first time the girl working at Starbucks remembered my name and order and asked me how I was doing, and I stuttered a response and found my feet taking me to a different coffee shop for the next two weeks rather than face small talk and familiarity, I was numb with disbelief. Surely these small, everyday occurrences could not be triggers for my anxiety?

But they were. I learned to deal with the surprises, but in a way that made me more anxious. Would today be the day leaving my house made me anxious? Would a stranger smiling at me give me a panic attack? Would I suddenly be unable to talk to the pharmacist, my doctor, my mom’s secretary, our neighbors, my friends, without breaking down into tears after?

Instead of being able to focus on enjoying my life and taking pleasure in social interactions, I found myself becoming anxious about when my anxiety would choose to rear its ugly head – my social anxiety had trapped me in a descending, paradoxical spiral.

I did not expect my anxiety to rapidly change how I did things, but it did.

After that first panic attack five years ago, I instantly became more cautious. I still view this as a completely natural response; social anxiety is predictable to a certain extent, but it was still something that embarrassed me. I have never actually had a panic attack in front of another person because I became so good at predicting when I would have one and extracting myself from whatever situation I was in to find a quiet place to break down independently. I would tell my teachers I had to get something from my locker, tell my friends I forgot something back at school, tell my parents I was going out for a walk, and let myself begin to hyperventilate as soon as I was out of earshot. The time I spent with others was agonizing because it almost always led to a panic attack or resulted in a moment I would spend hours stressing over. But the time I spent by myself was more agonizing because I spent much of it being smothered by the fears and uncertainty that lay at the centre of my anxiety. My social anxiety became my constant companion, weighing in on what I should do, how I should do it, when it should happen. I went out less and fell into bland routines that left little room for spontaneity.

I did not expect my anxiety to adapt and morph as I grew and changed, but it did.

There were brief periods of time when I thought I had outsmarted and therefore outgrown my social anxiety. After a few weeks without the cold, arresting anxiety pushing the thoughts out of my head and the air out of my lungs, I would begin to relax. Like most of the illogical behavior you adopt when anxiety becomes the driving force in your life, the tension I constantly felt was something I loathed, but it would begin to fade as days turned into weeks without a panic attack. During these times, I felt like I had conquered my anxiety; I became cautiously optimistic I would never feel the immediate need to leave a situation (accompanied, of course, by an impending sense of doom) again.

But then my social anxiety would surprise me. Remember me? it would ask, curling around me when my music was too loud. Did you think I had forgotten you?  it would whisper as it made me sprint home out of fear. You didn’t think I had left, did you? it would laugh as it forbid me from going to a Halloween party with my friends.
Each time I thought I had overcome my anxiety, it would show up in different parts of my life. Activities I had been able to do without hesitation would suddenly become triggering to even think about.

No matter what I did, my anxiety kept pace. It morphed to suit each new situation. Monsters can adapt, and adapt it did.

I did not expect my anxiety to become something I was afraid of, but it did.

I really do think of my social anxiety as a monster, strapped to my back so it could whisper in my ear and dictate my actions. When I had my first panic attack, my main emotion was determination to “beat” the anxiety that made it clear it would continue to plague me as often as possible. I was convinced I could shake it off; when it became apparent I would never completely outrun my social anxiety, I surprised myself by being so accepting.

My social anxiety wanted to rule me, and I let it.

I still do, although to a lesser extent. I no longer spend consecutive weeks refusing to leave my house, but I am constantly worried that the need to stay inside and avoid everyone at all costs will overtake me once again. I haven’t cried for hours at the mere thought of making a phone call in over a year, but each time I have to call someone I have to remind myself that is no longer something that scares me. Whenever I meet new people, I am worried I will have a panic attack in front of them; each time I talk to an authority figure, I’m still worried I will say something embarrassing and miss three nights of sleep over it. Each time I walk into a new building or go somewhere alone, I do so thinking about whether it will lead to a panic attack or not.

My social anxiety may ride around on my back, but fear whispers in my other ear. Even when I am not anxious, I am scared I will be, yet another spiral my anxiety and I are stuck in.

I did not expect my anxiety to make me stronger, but it did.

Fighting a monster each day does weaken your resolve and chip away at your will to continue trying, but it also makes you stronger in ways you would not expect. My anxiety and I are locked in a constant battle of wills; it’s almost like a game, the back and forth, constantly trying to outsmart each other. Some days I test my social anxiety, wondering what it will do if I do this differently, if I do that instead, if I suddenly change my routine. Can I be spontaneous quickly enough that my anxiety does not have time to react? Can I surprise it into submission?

Other days, I become a puppet, a vessel for my anxiety. Everything is terrifying, and I become willfully numb in response.

I try to think of it as a dance, or a game of give and take.

I know I have just painted a picture of myself as a timid, sobbing mess, but I am not. I am more hesitant, less impulsive, and very cautious when faced with new things because of my social anxiety, but after so many years with it as my constant companion, I am also determined.

I am no longer determined to completely overcome my social anxiety because I am fairly certain it will always be with me to some extent. I am strong enough to know my anxiety could grip me at any moment for any reason and continue to do whatever I want to do. I have the strength to push forward, test my anxiety, and fight back.

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Thinkstock image by -Iren-

Originally published: December 23, 2016
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