Kristeen Cherney

@kristeenc | staff
Kristeen Cherney is a Contributor Editor at The Mighty who also writes about social anxiety and depression. She recently finished her PhD in English with a focus on Disability Studies. Her dissertation explores archival research in the realm of Autism Literacy, and she is currently embarking on other mental health research projects. Read more about Kristeen's work at: www.kristeencherney.com.
Community Voices

How Running Helped Me Fight Depression and Social Anxiety

Lately I’ve found an all-natural solution that has helped me fight symptoms of #Depression and #SocialAnxiety.

But before I get into the details, I have a confession to make: I’ve never really been much of a runner. As a child with severe #Asthma, I would watch along the sidelines of the basketball court at school as I marveled at how my peers could run across the adjacent fields back and forth with ease. My asthma improved with time, but I felt I was way behind in terms of my running skills, as my high school friends would tease me about my gait in PE classes. I became petrified to run in front of other people for fear of looking silly. Any time I did have to run in PE, I felt like everyone was watching me.

From thereon out, I decided I would never be a runner—while my physical activity choices don’t necessarily define who I am, I secretly wanted to run. The #Anxiety in me would take an aggressive spin on running, where I would then outwardly talk about how running was a waste of time and that it’s bad for your knees, etc.

Then, something changed. Over the last several months, I’ve made some life changes following a significant panic attack that was a result of years of not taking care of myself. This also happened to be around the time that I started to seriously consider taking up running. I almost signed up for a local 5K, but the socially-anxious me decided to take up a challenge that was further away from home, and where I might not be noticed: the Star Wars 5K at Walt Disney World.

During the months in between signing up and running the actual race, I practiced as much as I could, all while having a setback due to a broken toe in between that time. Something interesting happened during this time—I found that not only was I improving my cardiovascular health, but I was experiencing fewer depressive episodes. The more I got outside for a run, the better I felt about myself and my outlook on life. No longer did I feel hopeless about my life, body, and career—at least on the days I ran. I tend to feel guilty about taking care of myself, but I don’t feel this sort of guilt after I’ve put in a good run.

Aside from fewer symptoms of depression, I also reaped the social anxiety benefits of running. At first, I would try to find trails where no one was around. Or I might go at odd times of the day so there would be less likelihood of someone there. When I did come across someone, I would stop running and make sure everyone was out of sight until I would pick it up once more.

Then one day on the Big Creek Greenway, I did the unthinkable: I ran in front of people (gasp)! To my surprise, no one was there to judge me or laugh at me—on the contrary, they were focusing on their own runs, walks, and bike rides. This experience gave me the confidence I needed to keep going.

I recently finished my first 5K at Disney World during the Star Wars Rival Run Weekend. Although I’m admittedly a long-time Darth Vader fan, I selected to run on the “Light Side” with intention. I long to reap more “light” in my life, and running is helping me get there.

Knowing I could complete a 5K with a few family members and a thousands of strangers has given me the confidence to sign up for local races. I just might come across someone I know, but now I’m prepared: I won’t look down and slow down my stride in fear. I will instead keep going with my head held high, and maybe even say hello.

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Community Voices

What I Learned After Taking My First Self-Care Day

“I think I need a #MentalHealth day,” I declared.

My husband was supportive and asked if there was anything he

could do to help. At the time, I was in the middle of teaching two classes,

finishing co-authoring a book, and preparing for my doctoral exams all on top

of the usual day-to-day tasks. By the time the middle of the semester hit, I

could feel the burn-out creeping up. I could not let this happen at such a critical time! 

I emailed my classes immediately with digital homework,

explaining that I had “a family emergency.” Indeed, it certainly felt like an

emergency, though I didn’t feel right saying it was a personal one. As women,

it seems that we often have to compensate for any feelings of weakness. It’s

even more complicated for women who also have mental health disabilities who

might need to “hide” them in an effort to keep up with the patriarchal expectation

of “strength.” 

So, in this case, it wasn’t enough for me to say I had personal matters to take care

of—instead, it was family-related. 

The next class, I tried to play it cool. But then of course

my students were concerned. “Is your family ok?” “Is your son alright?” “Oh, I

hope everything is ok!” 

Such reactions were demonstratable of sweet students here—I

half-expected that my students wouldn’t ask any questions and would just be

happy to have the day “off.” 

Of course, the fact that my students cared made me feel

guilty. Although I didn’t flat-out lie, I wasn’t completely honest with them.

Why couldn’t I just tell them I needed a mental health day? This in turn fueled

my anxieties, and I about undid all the self-care I ended up taking the day off

for.

I’d like to say that I completely learned my lesson that day

and how I now fully embrace the idea of the occasional self-care day, guilt-free.

But I’d be lying. What I did learn is

not to hide the fact that I need a self-care day, or to feel guilty about not

having an explanation. We all need days of self-care and no—we do not need to explain why unless we would

like to.

 

In the last year or so, I have found that talking about my

anxiety and #Depression helps alleviate guilt from taking the time to take care

of myself. I have also made it a point to try to tap into my burnout signals to

determine when it’s time for some self-care before I reach a melting point. 

Self-care also doesn’t have to be the way we imagine it as a

day spa retreat or a full day of yoga. For me, it’s mostly sleeping and reading,

perhaps with some gentle stretches mixed in. If I’m having more #Anxiety than

depression, I may go for a walk. 

Everyone’s situation is different. But what we all have in common

is the fact that we all need a little bit more self-care in our lives: and it’s

nothing to be ashamed of.
 

Dealing With Social Anxiety at the Grocery Store

Dear Neighbor, I saw you at the grocery store the other day in the bread aisle. I wanted to make sure you didn’t see me, though I’m pretty sure you did. We briefly made eye contact. You may have shifted your grocery cart toward my direction, but I was looking away panicked that you might have picked up on my nervousness. But I’m not certain. Before we had a chance to let the encounter go any further, I bolted and went to the personal care aisle. (It’s important to note I didn’t need actually need anything from the personal care aisle.) Based on my reaction you may be surprised to learn that I like you. In fact, you’re one of the few neighbors I feel comfortable around. We wave to each other from time to time, and we might stop and chit-chat as we walk our dogs. So you might be wondering why in the world I would avoid you at the grocery store? It’s not my fault, but still entirely my fault at the same time. While I feel the courage to approach you and say the occasional “hello” at home, I was not prepared for that day we ran into each other in front of the sandwich bread. I have the ability to better prepare for social encounters when I’m on my own turf — I am able to anticipate who might “surprise” me with a casual conversation. I can then muster the courage to interact when I feel the time is right. I can even come up with a few topics of conversation in advance so I’m not caught off guard, stumbling over my words (or worse — contending with awkward silence). But a random encounter places me out of my comfort zone. It’s unexpected. I don’t have time to prepare what to say. I’m nervous about my appearance, the way I might sound and ramble on. Heck, you might even judge me for the items that are in my grocery cart for all I know. “I thought she was staying away from gluten? Didn’t she say she was a vegetarian? Oh my gosh, I can’t believe she’s got those cookies in her cart!” So, you see, the risk of anxiety far outweighs the chances of saying “hello” to you out of the blue. It doesn’t mean I dislike you. In fact, when I see you around the neighborhood, I will likely ask you about your family and tell you how mine is doing in return. But for now, please forgive my mad dash toward the body lotions and toothpastes. And whatever you do, please don’t try to follow me. Sincerely, Your Socially Anxious Neighbor

What Social Anxiety Isn't Like

Social anxiety is often classified as irrational fears stemming from social interactions. Due to the wide-ranging triggers and symptoms of my condition, I often encounter misconceptions when I try to open up to others about social anxiety. My social anxiety isn’t… 1. “Just stress.” We’re all dealing with increasing stress in our lives. In my case, I am busy finishing my doctorate, freelance writing as my way of making a living and also being a mother. Sometimes, when I feel anxious in social situations, you might blame my busy schedule. Yes, I am stressed with all that’s on my plate, but such stressors don’t automatically create social anxiety. In fact, I had social anxiety long before entering graduate school and becoming a writer and mommy. 2. “Being shy.” Shyness means that you might feel timid about socializing with others, but my social anxiety goes beyond feeling timid about meeting and talking with other people. Aside from being shy, I experience rapid heart rate, heavy breathing and sweating, along with stomach upset. I have to psyche myself up for hours — sometimes days — in advance of a social interaction to help put me at ease. 3. “Feeling tired.” Social anxiety can be exhausting. Oftentimes, after a social event, I’m wiped out for the next day or two. Due to the exhaustion, you might incorrectly believe my social anxiety is just being tired and not having the energy to interact with others. On the contrary, it is this very interaction that’s causing the exhaustion—I might be pumped up beforehand and it goes unnoticed because the excitement is short-lived before I get tired. 4. “Just needing a break.” I might miss out on different social events or sometimes cancel at the last minute. You might believe it’s due to the fact I just need a break from others. This is true to some extent, but rather than just “needing a break,” my brain is telling me to avoid certain situations that make me feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this creates a cycle of avoidance that can make my social anxiety worse over time, but once in a while, I can’t help giving in. 5. Me being “stuck-up.” I love people. I love listening to stories and helping others. But, as mentioned above, I sometimes avoid social situations and appear standoffish. This can incorrectly portray me as being “stuck-up.” Compounding the problem is my fear of introducing myself to new people, which can make me seem disinterested in others. I will, however, introduce myself when someone else initiates the conversation. 6. Out of intentional rudeness. In a social situation, I sometimes avoid making eye contact, and I’ll have my phone on hand for something to do to avoid making conversation. I might also panic in the middle of making small talk and need to get away. I do not mean to be rude — I just find many social interactions overwhelming. 7. A speech impairment. When speaking in front of groups big and small, I tend to talk fast. I might also stutter and slur some of my words, or even accidentally skip some altogether. Sometimes words may be hard to come by, which can make my social anxiety worse because I think I’m being judged for not using the right words when I am, ironically, an English major. I do not have any particular speech impairment, though. Such symptoms are only temporary when my social anxiety flares up. 8. From a desire to be eternally alone. Yes, I deal with social anxiety on a regular basis, which can translate into lots of alone time. However, I do not, in fact, wish to be alone forever. I am content with my family, and I love spending time with friends. I even like working out with my “gym buddies.” Rather than desiring to be alone, I choose to spend my time with others in moderation, always putting family first. 9. The same thing as being an introvert. I am indeed an introvert, where I tend to recharge through single-person activities, such as reading, writing and working out. I’m also more observant than I am talkative. However, unlike introverts who simply prefer hanging out with fewer people, I can get anxiety in larger groups. I even become anxious when there’s too much talking going on in a small space because I don’t know how to navigate the situation and simply “join in.” 10. Being weak. Social anxiety is far from being weak. During my teens and 20s, I was unable to identify my social anxiety and I often thought there was something wrong with me because everyone else seemed to navigate social situations far better than I could. Once I identified social anxiety at age 30, I have found ways to embrace my social anxiet, and to even acknowledge it as part of my personality. More importantly, I have built connections with others who have social anxiety, which has created a space to talk about our anxiety when we want to.