The best advice I’ve been given about social anxiety and avoidance

Everything in life involves other people. It’s just how we are as humans – social connections are important. It’s why I think social anxiety is so cruel, by avoiding what you fear, you avoid the ability to live your life.

Despite this, I have managed to reach out to others, even if it’s just been in a mental health setting like a support group. It’s always seemed easier that way, as I felt I would be understood by others who have their own mental health difficulties.

I was thinking about the advice people have given me over the years and thought it would be good to share it here. It really helped to give me a different perspective.

Quietness can be a powerful presence

The first lot of advice came from the 18 months I spent in group therapy. I usually took a back seat within the group and found myself listening to other people’s stories and I would occasionally chip in with advice.

I voiced my frustration in the group one day and said: “Sometimes it feels like no one would notice if I didn’t even show up as I just sit here without saying anything. I almost feel like a ghost.”

They assured me that wasn’t the case, as when I did speak, they noticed and valued what I was saying as it was often thoughtful. One person said they wondered what was going through my mind. The therapist added: “You might feel like your quietness makes you invisible, but it can actually be quite a powerful presence that is noticed when you’re absent. When you do speak up, people notice.”

It stuck with me as it shows that there is value in being quiet. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on expressing yourself, but it’s fine if you’re not a chatterbox too!

You either avoid, or you don’t

Next came from the social anxiety support group I used to go to. I was talking to one guy about avoidance, and how we used it as our main coping mechanism. I said that I often overanalyse myself and think about how small my life has become as I avoid so much.

He replied that it didn’t have to be so complicated. At the end of the day each time your fear is triggered, avoiding it is a choice. You either avoid something, or you don’t. If you’re sick of avoiding things, then you can choose not to. He then started laughing and said: “one day the earth will be swallowed up by the sun, so it won’t matter anyway!”

I guess you could argue it’s a simplistic way of thinking, but I kind of like it. When something crops up now, I’ll think: “well, are you going to avoid it or not?” The key is to not beat yourself up about it. There will be times when you feel like you need to avoid, it’s a coping mechanism, just try to balance it with facing things too.

Many people feel socially anxious

Finally, I’ve noticed that most people will have some understanding of social anxiety. I’ve mentioned it to quite a few different people, that I’m shy and socially anxious – they probably noticed it for themselves. What surprised me was that they can often relate. I’ve lost count of the times where people told me they feel like that too, and that’s from people who you would never guess!

Social anxiety disorder is obviously different from being a bit shy, but I found it reassuring that people could understand where I was coming from. And it helped me frame it in my mind: social anxiety is normal. It makes it easier for me to accept.

So there you have it, I hope you found my examples helpful or thought provoking. What’s the best advice someone ever gave you?

How to stop being your own worst critic

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-image and how I give my more ‘negative’ traits more attention than the positive ones.

What is seen as negative will vary from one person to the next, some of us struggle with body image, and others might be critical about aspects of their personality. I know I get very preoccupied about how I’m coming across to others, I worry that I’m too quiet, or too anxious, which then makes me feel more anxious! It’s easy for these thoughts to spiral and before you know it, you’re making absolute judgements about yourself.

Stop assigning meaning to the judgements

This leads you to believe things that are exaggerated or distorted. Dr Ronald Alexander wrote in Psychology Today: “The object is to stop assigning meaning to these self-judgments, because once you start to give them weight, they begin to weigh you down… Often, the rational mind will string together a series of distortions. Instead of simply noticing “I am shy,” the mind will generate the thought, “I’m shy, which is why I’ll never find a romantic partner; my shyness makes me unattractive.” https://bit.ly/39vWNlp

This is a pattern that I’m noticing a lot; I attach meaning to all kinds of things. I feel anxious so that means I’m going to lose the plot and end up making a fool of myself. My neighbour didn’t say hi to me today, it’s because he dislikes me and doesn’t want to talk to me. It makes me feel so much worse!

It’s not about lying to yourself either, but simply seeing things for what they are. For example, I’m a socially awkward person, and I could try and tell myself that isn’t true, but I wouldn’t believe it. Because it is true, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Using mindfulness techniques is a good way of gaining some distance from your thoughts, and hopefully making it less likely that you’ll jump to the judgements.

Spoiler alert, I have loads of things to offer the world – and so do you

Instead of judging myself, I wrote a list of everything positive I have to offer other people. It’s a good exercise for anyone that struggles with self-judgement and I highly recommend it. It can be anything, examples of situations that you felt you handled well, what you like about how you look, things you appreciate about your personality. You might be surprised at what comes up.

Loneliness at Christmas

I usually really enjoy the Christmas season, but sometimes it can amplify feelings of loneliness. My Mum loves watching those cheesy American Christmas movies where the main character falls in love, finds her happily ever after and is surrounded by friends and family. Which is quite the opposite to our own Christmas experience!

I try to make light of it and joke that I’m not bothered as I’m antisocial anyway, but it does make me feel sad that we don’t have much family left. Most of the relatives from my childhood have died. I know I’m not alone in this, and many people struggle to cope with loss at Christmas time.

Pandemic loneliness

The pandemic hasn’t helped matters either. “2.6 million UK adults reported they felt lonely “often” or “always” between 3 April and 3 May 2020, about the same proportion as pre-lockdown.” UK Office for National Statistics.

This reflects how I feel about loneliness. I can usually busy myself and get by okay, but it’s when things go wrong that I feel it the most and I wish I had more people to call on. These times of Covid have added a lot of stress to our already stressful lives.

I do try to count my blessings. I feel lucky to have a wonderful friend that I know I can rely on, and my Mum of course. Friends mean a lot to those of us without family, and I really want to make more effort with meeting new people in 2021. I thought this year was going to be ‘my year’ for socialising, but Covid has meant everything that I wanted to do is cancelled!

Socialising with mental illness is hard

Mental illness makes it tough connect with people and maintain relationships at the best of times. I have spoken to people online with social anxiety who are completely alone. My heart goes out to them, as we might traditionally think it’s the elderly who are most isolated, but many young people fall through the cracks in society too, and it doesn’t take much to end up in that situation.

So if you usually find Christmas Day a struggle, then try to plan ahead. Could you call a friend or family member for a chat? If you’re on your own could you look into volunteering? Or you could log on to Twitter and follow the hashtag – #joinin to chat to others also in need of a bit of company. It’s a lovely idea started by the UK comedian Sarah Millican.

Above all please be kind to yourself. The reality is, even people with family don’t always have happy lives. Drunken rows over the dinner table don’t feature in the soppy festive ads, funny that!

Three things I wish I knew about anxiety when I was younger

Medication isn’t a quick fix or a cure

I know that medication can be a controversial subject, and I go back and forth about whether I’d like to give it another try myself. It doesn’t help that my first experience wasn’t great. I was only 17 when I first went to my doctor about my anxiety – he immediately put me on antidepressants and diazepam! He told me that everything would be great, and my family would notice a big change in me. But that just wasn’t the case, I didn’t feel much different and the diazepam just made me dizzy, so I came off them after a couple of months.

Now the doctor was obviously at fault as he gave the impression that the medication would ‘cure’ me. They aren’t a quick fix or a cure, but they do help a lot of people, so it’s really down to the individual. If you think they could be a part of your recovery, try to manage your expectations and do your own research. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about any concerns or questions you may have.

Therapy might not work the first time around

To get the most from therapy, it depends on a few factors:

Are you mentally in a place where you can open up and practice the techniques you’re learning? Are you and your therapist a good fit? Is the therapy itself right for you?

I once had a counsellor that I just didn’t get on with from the start. When I told her I’d already had a lot of therapy, she seemed pretty annoyed by this and said “what do you want me to say that’s any different” and “you shouldn’t be using up these resources,” which made me cry!

Please don’t be put off by this though! I’ve had some wonderful, knowledgeable therapists who I’ve made a lot if progress with. So, don’t despair if things aren’t quite right the first time round, you can request to see another person or try a different type of therapy that suits you better.

There’s no shame whatsoever if you need ongoing support. You do what you have to do to feel better – if you’ve been suffering for years then it stands to reason that it will take time to heal.

There are more people out there with anxiety than you think

When I was younger, I thought I was weird for having anxiety. I’d shake on my way to college and feel sick. I just didn’t understand what was happening to me. But I wasn’t alone, as so many young people experience anxiety, it’s just knowing where to find them as not everyone feels able to talk about it.

I think it’s brilliant that here’s so much more support and awareness out there now than when I was a teen. You don’t have to isolate yourself, reach out to support groups, online communities or anxiety charities. There have been times when being around people was the last thing I wanted, but it ended up being the best possible thing for me. When I first spoke to another social anxiety sufferer at a support group it was an incredible feeling – there were people who understood exactly how I felt. I wasn’t so weird after all.

Is your anxiety a fear of fear itself?

Fear is a funny thing. You might experience it often in your day to day life but not understand why certain situations scare you so much. Or you might know perfectly well but find yourself unable to stop it.

The people closest to you might not understand either, even if you painstakingly try to explain where you’re coming from. I’ve had many conversations with my family, and they’ve asked me, exasperated: “but why do you feel so anxious, you know that nothing bad will happen!” Yes, I do, but how I feel isn’t rational!

I sat down one day and gave it some serious thought. What was it that made me feel so awful – what makes me want to avoid so much of life? Suddenly it hit me; it’s the feeling of fear itself. The overwhelming pounding in my chest, the rapid breathing, the derealisation and the feeling that I was about to lose control. For me, what started as social anxiety evolved into something else.

Anxiety is normal

And as I’m sure you know; anxiety can be all consuming. If someone were to ask me what I wanted above all else, it would be to feel free. To know that I could simply feel calm and never be fearful again. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that! I’ve come to accept that I will always experience anxiety because anxiety is normal, the thing that needs to change is how I relate to it.

This fear of fear is known as ‘anxiety sensitivity.’ Noam Shpancer Ph.D writes on: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/insight-therapy/202002/anxiety-sensitivity-when-what-we-fear-is-fear-itself “Research suggests that stressful life events, specifically those related to health and family discord, are associated with increases in anxiety sensitivity. These stressful events contribute to the emergence of anxiety sensitivity by leading to the formation of distorted, dysfunctional beliefs about the meaning and consequences of somatic sensations.”

You can break the cycle

My reaction to feelings of anxiety, was that it was unbearable, and I might lose control so it must be avoided at all costs. By thinking this I set myself up in a cycle of fear that has been difficult to break. But the cycle can be broken.

In my experience, mindfulness has been a valuable tool in accepting fear. Observing your anxiety, without attaching judgement to it can give yourself much needed space to think clearly. “This too shall pass” and “fear is just a feeling” have become mantras of mine!

I used to think that I was weird for feeling like this, or unable to change, but actually – it’s normal. A normal human behaviour that lots of other people experience. This anxiety sensitivity is a reaction, a coping mechanism to the experiences you have had in your life. And by gradually changing your relationship with fear, and seeing it for what it is, you can reduce its intensity.

Celebrities that share your anxiety struggles

Anxiety is a difficult condition to live with, it can take over your life and trick you into believing that things will never get better. You might even feel like anxiety will prevent you from becoming successful. But it doesn’t have to! There are many people in the public eye that have found success while dealing with their own personal anxieties. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a few of them here.

Fearne Cotton

Fearne has opened up over the past couple of years on her brilliant ‘Happy Place’ podcast about her battles with anxiety, panic attacks and an eating disorder. She found that things improved for her when she took a step back from her busy lifestyle and focused more on self-care and a better work-life balance.

Adele

She’s a successful singer-songwriter and has won five Grammy awards, but she also suffers with panic attacks and stage fright. Yet she has still managed to perform confidently to huge live audiences! She told Rolling Stone that she deals with it by telling jokes and talking a lot to keep the mood light.

Michael Phelps

Well-known for his competitive swimming. He’s the most successful Olympian of all time; winning 28 medals! But he’s also lived with anxiety, depression and substance issues. Like many of us he’s been finding the new COVID world difficult, and in a recent interview with ESPN said: “The pandemic has been one of the scariest times I’ve been through. I’m thankful that my family and I are safe and healthy. I’m grateful we don’t have to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table, like so many other folks right now. But still, I’m struggling.” He encourages people to reach out to others and talk about how they are feeling.

Harrison Ford

Would it surprise you to discover that the superstar Hollywood actor suffers from glossophobia – the fear of public speaking. When he won the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, he told the Los Angeles Times that he felt grateful, but “the greatest fear in my life is public speaking.” His acceptance speech can be viewed on Youtube; you’ll notice he is fighting to stay calm and control his breathing. He’s notorious for being a bit grumpy, but I think this shows him in a different light.

Kristen Stewart

Most famous for playing Bella Swan in Twilight, Kristen has experienced OCD, panic attacks and found it difficult adjusting to fame. I remember watching her interviews and thinking how uncomfortable she looked. In an interview with Elle she said: “’I went through so much stress.’ The pressure of being a young star contributed to serious physical anxiety: ‘I had panic attacks. I used to puke every day.’ She has learned to cope better as she got older and went on to say, “I had gone through so much that did not kill me… sorry, I know that sounds dramatic … I realise the anxiety just ran out. I didn’t have the energy to do that anymore.”

I found it fascinating that these are successful people, vastly different from each other and in how they’ve dealt with their anxieties, but they’ve all gone through similar experiences. Just like you and me. It just shows that if you’ve got a dream or a goal in life, anxiety doesn’t need to stand in your way.

Why changing your routine is a good thing

I’ve never been good at leaving my comfort zone. I enjoy routine and the feeling of comfort that brings, because that means I’m in control, right?

But then life happens and I can’t control it at all, it just plays out. Some of my worst anxiety occurs when I feel a loss of control, and if I can’t escape to a place of safety I panic. So, to counter these feelings I’ve decided to try and leave my comfort zone every now and again!

I’ve had loads of fun, interesting experiences when I’ve broken my routine. Be that interacting with new people or visiting new places – new experiences enrich your life. And it hasn’t been without anxiety, but that’s a part of recovery which is worth the effort. Anxiety may never leave completely, but that does not mean you can’t still lead a fulfilling life.

So why not make a small change and appreciate what happens next? Think of one thing you’d like to do today and give it a go!

One of my interests is photography, and usually I only take photographs when I’m at home in my garden. So the next time I go for a walk I’m going to take my camera with me, it’ll be difficult to take pictures with other people around, but I’ll do it and see what happens.

I’ll sign off with some pictures I took in my garden.

The Desert


I thought I was alone in this desert,

In fact, I’ve never felt so lonely.

The sky is beautiful, unbroken and blue,

But not as blue as me.

The scorpion at my feet walks by, oblivious.

I’m not alone because you are over there,

I wave at you frantically,

The sand swirls around me,

Into the shape of a strange person,

A mirage you can only half see.

Why must the words stick in my throat.

The heat, the fear,

It dashes any chance of rescue.

If I must I’ll build a temple of stone,

And then perhaps you’ll come.

I step into a riverbed that long since ran dry,

I lay the foundations stone by stone,

My hands are throbbing and crack,

Taunting me to turn back.

But I know I must carry on.

Now my foundations are good and strong,

Startled, I look on,

As someone I’ve never met approaches.

I look at them and smile,

Smiling back they say, I thought I was alone in this desert.

I Lost Myself

A few months ago a song called She Used To Be Mine by Sara Bareilles made me stop in my tracks. It’s about life not turning out in the way you wanted and feeling like you’ve lost a part of yourself. I can’t think of a song that has ever hit me like that before and after listening to it I immediately burst into tears.

I thought back to my final year of high school; (16 years ago.. eek!) I was excited about leaving and what the future held, “we can start living and be free to do whatever we want,” I laughed excitedly to my friends. But unfortunately due to my social anxiety disorder and mental health struggles it didn’t really work out like that for me. I went to university and dropped out after 3 months, struggled to hold down a string of basic jobs and ended my long term relationship two years ago after he cheated on me. My relationship was a big part of my life and after it ended I felt lost, as I realised just how much focus I’d put on him rather than myself. (I’ll write a post about why neglecting yourself in a relationship is a bad idea soon).

For the last two years I’ve been slowly rebuilding myself, having therapy and thinking about exactly what I want from my life. I’m not quite there yet but I believe I’m on the right track. Sometimes I feel a bit sad for the naive young girl I was, whose soul was a lot lighter and more optimistic, but the truth is with age comes wisdom. Although I haven’t achieved everything I wanted, I’m still proud of myself for carrying on and growing so much as a person.

The song really inspired me so I decided to write a poem.

Finding Her Feet

The funny girl with the vivid red hair,

Lost herself as the years passed and the people fell.

She reached the end of her path,

And tumbled across the ground grazing her knees,

Watching as the others kept walking.


Her hair is still red but it’s faded now,

And she carries on smiling but without the vivre.

She might have a plan but can’t see the wood for the trees,

But that’s OK because now she’s found her feet.


The red transforms into chestnut brown,

Her outer layers crack and fall into jagged pieces,

She exits the thicket and boldly steps into the breeze,

The woman she is can now simply be.

Social Anxiety is frustrating, but change is possible.

Social anxiety disorder has been an extremely unwelcome companion throughout my life. From the age of 13 to now in my 30s – the feeling of dread has been ticking over in my mind.

It’s sad and frustrating to think back over the many career and educational opportunities that I missed out on. The truth is I couldn’t cope with the intensity of my anxiety. In one of the few office jobs that I held down for a few months, I’d spend my time at work feeling unbearably tense. Being in an environment surrounded by people overwhelmed me. I’d feel a crashing wave of relief as I walked out of the door at the end of each day, only to feel the familiar dread when I realised, I had to go back and do it all over again tomorrow.

It has undoubtedly held me back, but I refuse to give up. I have the drive to make something of myself, and that’s where the frustration lies. I’m sure if you experience anxiety too you can relate. So even when my anxious mind tells me that I should give up ever trying to write anything, ’cause it’s rubbish and no-one will want to read it – I decided to write this post. Because that’s how change happens, you acknowledge the anxiety but carry on anyway.

It’s never too late to try and make changes to your life as it’s something we’re all innately capable of. Your brain is constantly adapting and learning (it’s called neuroplasticity – the connections in your brain strengthen and weaken over time.)

As I’m trying to change my tricksy brain I’ll set myself some goals. I find it extremely helpful to have some structure in my life. (Without goals I skip from one thing to another as there’s so many things I’m interested in. Think jack of all trades and master of none).

Goals

  1. Take the time to write every day. If I want to get good; I need to practice.
  2. Leave the house at least 4 times a week. This one could be tough as I’m great at finding reasons why I’m too busy, too tired, etc.
  3. Plan my time. I have a weekly planner, so I should make use of it to try and focus my endeavours.

That’s all for now. If you want to set yourself some goals too, I’d suggest that you stick to a few, and start out small as there’s no point in overwhelming yourself with a humongous list.