All of us will experience some anxiety in certain social situations, particularly highly pressured ones like job interviews. Social anxiety disorder is more than shyness, due to the excessive worrying and physical symptoms of anxiety involved, and is characterised by the NHS as an ‘intense fear that does not go away…affect[ing] everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life.’
Feeling like Big Brother is watching you
I once described it to a friend as feeling like Big Brother is watching you, as if there are hidden cameras following your every move, with everyone nearby waiting for you to do something stupid and make a complete fool of yourself. Except the Big Brother/cameras are your own brain, and that something stupid could be so minute that no one else notices, but you feel ashamed all the same.
The mental health blogger and author Claire Eastham writes that social anxiety makes you hyper aware of how you appear in social situations. For me, my mind constantly evaluates whether I seem ‘normal’ or if other people think I’m a total idiot. It has taken a lot of practice to feel less anxious doing fairly low-stake things like ordering a cup of tea in Portland Coffee, or even suggesting ideas during Impact meetings!
Gradual exposure to social situations and proving to myself I can handle situations has brought me a long way. Although I turned down most invitations to go out during first year, I did accompany friends into the city centre a couple of times. Both trips lasted a few hours and I stuck to my friends like a limpet! On both occasions, once I returned to halls and the privacy of my bedroom, I burst into tears, the after-effect of doing my best to cope in the busy city centre.
I’ve started worrying about how out of practice I’ll be when the lockdown is lifted.
One year later, I did an internship with a company in Hockley and started to get to know a small part of the city centre until it became somewhere I felt slightly more comfortable walking around. However, now we’re in lockdown and our activities are limited to essentials like exercise or food shopping, I’ve started worrying about how out of practice I’ll be when the lockdown is lifted.
At first, the lockdown announcement felt like a dream come true. No more feeling sick with dread when going out into scary social situations! I happen to be a somewhat solitary person, in that I enjoy being alone, so staying home is extremely easy for me to do. If anything, a little too easy.
Lessening my levels of social anxiety has involved doing small things regularly, like making eye contact with strangers and saying hello whilst walking my dog. As I live in a household with someone who is classed as high risk, dog walks have been confined to going round the block once a day. I’m no longer interacting with anyone outside my family, save virtually, and I’ve realised I’m no longer practicing facing real world social situations.
Ultimately, what if I never want to leave the house?
This has prompted a new kind of anxiety: what if I end up regressing and lose the skills I’ve spent the last couple of years developing? I’ve started catastrophising about what might happen when we’re able to go out. As illustrated in the city centre example, crowds have always been a source of anxiety for me. Now I’m growing so used to being at home, I fear I won’t be able to handle those places when we are able to go out and mix. Ultimately, what if I never want to leave the house?
Although living a virtual life feels a little easier, I have noticed I’m still experiencing some social anxiety over screens. One to ones with a tutor over Zoom are okay, but joining larger group video chats is far less comfortable. Even on a screen, I still feel like everyone’s gaze is waiting for me to make a fool of myself. As I’ve noticed my anxiety heightening, I’ve started doing more of the things that help ground me, like meditation or knitting to stop my thoughts spiralling.
I’m doing my best to notice these thoughts as they occur and rationalise the fearful thinking. Yes, it’s possible that when the lockdown first ends I’ll find socialising more difficult, but I tell myself I’ll be able to get through it.
As Dr. Pooky Knightsmith states in her video reflecting on social anxiety and the current lockdown situation, it’s helpful to make non-time specific plans for the future that you look forward to. Although I have no idea when the graduation ceremony will be taking place, I am looking forward to celebrating my undergraduate studies and seeing my peers again. This gives me the impetus to maintain my skills and manage my social anxiety. One way of practicing has been to join in group video calls and sit with the uncomfortable sensations that come up to show myself I can get through it.
Be less rigid in my routines and accept uncertainty
One thing I have learnt over the last few weeks is to be less rigid in my routines and accept uncertainty. My yearning for control has given way to sitting with uncertainty, though it feels uncomfortable, and training myself to focus more on the present moment than fixate on the unknown future.
Places for further information:
We’re All Mad Here: The No-Nonsense Guide to Living With Social Anxiety by Claire Eastham (https://www.allmadhere.co.uk).
Claire Eastham’s blog post on Coronavirus anxiety: https://www.allmadhere.co.uk/2020/03/24/coronavirus-anxiety/
Pooky Knightsmith Mental Health: https://youtu.be/3cnnkrEieQE
NHS social anxiety: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-anxiety/
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