The NHS describes it as “Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) is a persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations.”
I’ve been socially anxious for a majority of my life, only over the past 4/5 years have I actually figured out what it meant and why I was like it. Anxiety of any form is the most common thing people deal with, and for those who don’t it does just look like we’re introverts and shy, or antisocial.
As a kid I was always out of the house, I loved going out and playing in parks and talking to my friends and exploring ‘new land.’ As I got older I found myself getting anxious about being out of the house alone, it was way more evident in my High School years, but like any pre-teen I assumed it was something to do with puberty, or my new found self awareness, like the only reason I didn’t want to be outside is because people were now looking at me because I wasn’t a child anymore. I was suddenly an adult, in my own eyes, and that meant people were judging me, my height, my weight, what I was wearing, how my hair looked, if I was wearing makeup etc etc. Like any person I got on with it, I would go to school, get on buses, go to the shops, by myself and then all of a sudden that turned into what I can only explain as a blind panic, the thought of walking 30 feet to the shop near my house was without a doubt the most terrifying thing in the world. I couldn’t walk anywhere without knowing someone was meeting me, going to friends houses wasn’t a fun thing to do anymore because I wasn’t in my own space. I couldn’t sleep if I was at someone else’s house, I hated answering the phone, so I just ignored it. Later on that turned into ‘I am not going there unless I am with someone I am comfortable with’ ‘I’m not going unless one of my parents drops me off.’
If I had to walk to someones house then I wouldn’t go, if my mum asked me to go to the shop I would cry, I started having panic attacks in busy places, I couldn’t even spend time with family unless I was next to my mum the entire time. Social situations petrified me, staying at home was my safe place, and even with saying that it got to a point where I was only comfortable in my bedroom alone. There is nothing more disappointing than going from an adventurous 9 year old to a 13/14 year old that’s too scared to go downstairs in her own house.
I swear the worst part was during High School actually, because my school was quite far out, it meant a majority of my friends were 30 minute bus journeys away, I’d force myself onto buses (providing I had headphones) or was on the phone to my friends for the entire time, but I would beg my parents to pick me up once it was later. High School is a terrible time anyway because you’re finding out who you are, you’re determined to be known and make friends, you want to be in the popular crowd and even more you kind of just want it to be over. Making friends was pretty easy, like I said, the most common misconception is that we’re introverts, and sometimes we are, but I’m not, I enjoy making friends, I enjoy hanging out with people and learning about them, I’m loud and a bit odd, and I come alive in groups, so the frustration of your brain physically not letting you be like that is unbearable. Imagine wanting to be that person but the kind of person you are is someone that is too scared to even ask a teacher to go to the toilet.
I had a lot of friends in school, and I knew a lot of people but it never stopped the fact that all I could think about was the fear of doing anything perceived as ‘normal’ It isn’t a case of “the more you go out of your comfort zone the better it will be” or “once you’re outside you’ll be fine” it felt like the more I tried to force myself to do then the worse it got. At college, well GCSE’s, all I did was focus on studying and tried to keep my head down, but what I didn’t know back then is that stress plays a MASSIVE factor in anxiety. I missed exams, I’d hide at home instead of going to school and I started getting really weird with all my friends. Some days were better than others but there was (and still is) that voice in your head that just screams RUN, walking into a room didn’t involve finding who or what I was there for, it involved finding the exits or an excuse to leave, it was internal screaming because in my head the entire room was staring at me and thinking negative thoughts, it was trying to figure out when people laughed why they were laughing at me, it was thinking about the uncontrollable discomfort to being there in the first place, it was trying to remind myself how to talk to other humans. I spent 2 years being essentially a mess, all I did was cry when I got home, I never did anything, but I still thought that’s exactly how everyone else reacted to those kinds of situations. Even having friends I never felt like they actually liked me, almost as if it was some kind of joke that they were my friends, that in a weeks time they’d turn around and laugh at me for being stupid enough to think they’d like me as a person.
After my GCSEs it seemed to take a backseat for a while, I was so focused on getting my shit together and sorting out my A Levels, that it didn’t actively get in the way for around 6-8 months, and it was pretty much the calm before the storm I guess, I started having panic attacks once or twice a day. Sometimes during school hours which involved running away to hide in the toilets (with post 16 giving us the freedom to not have to ask to go anymore) sometimes at home, I had a few when I was just walking down the street. It wasn’t pretty. I inevitably dropped out, stopped doing my AS Levels, had my dad call in on the day of an exam and tell them I’d quit and wouldn’t be coming in anymore.
I ended up starting at a new Art college in Hinckley, BTEC course so no stress of exams, all Art subjects which meant my passion for it could really blossom. Got through my first year with really no issues, I was calm, I was happy to be expressing myself, I loved my tutors and my group, they were such a phenomenal and inspiring group to be around. We spent a weekend in Paris, which a year before that would’ve been absolutely impossible. I was happy and contempt, with the odd occasion of walking into a room and getting a sense of dread, but the moment I could hide behind a Mac, camera, paintbrush, chalk, whatever the medium, I managed to keep the ‘flight reaction’ pretty quiet. I turned 18, got a part time job in a nightclub, started earning some money so I could actually enjoy going out and doing things. Juggling studying and working wasn’t too hard, every now and again I would have to pull an all nighter just to get coursework finished but that’s not unheard of. Then the panic attacks started happening at work, my 10 minute 2am break would involve crying in a staff room or toilet or something ridiculous. I had to go and do an English exam at the Warwickshire Campus one day and BOYYYYYYYYYYYYYY the night before I was shaking, I wanted to be sick, I was adamant I wouldn’t go until one of the girls on my course, being the angel that she is, offered to come with me and show me where I was going, it wasn’t bad when I got in there because I was literally the only person in the room so there were no distractions, apart from obviously assuming the invigilator thought I was a moron, would be telling staff about a fat girl that came in to do an exam, the girl that breathed too loudly, you know, the norm.
I managed to make it through my first year in Hinckley, and started my second, but about 3 months into it I just lost any kind of focus I had, all my passion for art went away, I was working around 5 nights a week as well, I’d be awake for 2 days straight and then try to find the energy to work or study and I just couldn’t. I dropped out of school again, and decided that earning money would benefit me way more even if it did mean I would spend all night ready to cry or crying. I ended up having the biggest argument with my mum while she was working away in London in which she told me I would be the “fuck up” my whole family already thought I was. I’d occasionally go out with friends but after the 4th night out in a row that involved me having massive panic attacks in club toilets I decided that it wasn’t for me anymore. I quit my job after a while and stopped doing anything. I think I spent, in total, 4 months in my bedroom, I didn’t talk to anyone, I ignored my phone, I’d lie to my parents and say I was talking to friends so they wouldn’t worry.
Social Anxiety makes you feel incredibly lonely, you could have a million friends but you’ll always convince yourself they hate you, you cut yourself off from everyone, you stop being social, you’re always uncomfortable.
My parents eventually convinced me to get another job, it was a shitty agency job behind a bar, so I’d work events, the people I worked with were awful, they weren’t welcoming at all, everyone was out for themselves, that’s the issue with 0 hours, the more staff then the less shifts you get. It just felt like another blow to the already judgemental thought process I had going on, because these people, in fact, did not like me. I spent another couple of months shut away, then I worked in various bars, although the hours messed with me a lot, bar work never gave me the time to worry about anything else, you just make drinks, take their money, and then your shift’s over and you go home.
My anxiety has definitely calmed down over the past 2 years, the more I learnt about it and the more I could be in control then the easier it got to deal with. I still look for exits whenever I go anywhere, I still get the dread in my stomach before I go somewhere but I hit a point where I nearly missed out on a year of my life through fear of being out and around people. I’ve had one conversation with my family about it maybe 2ish years ago but we haven’t talked about it since;
Not that I’m slating them at all, they’re amazing, they just don’t understand it, and it’s hard for them to relate in any way to how I get, even after many comparisons of “it’s like when you’re afraid of snakes and see one, but instead of snakes it’s when my phone rings or I have to go somewhere, or I’m around people”
I now travel and backpack, I organise trips away with friends for a weekend, I can go shopping on my own sometimes, not always, probably never always, and when I do I have to be on the phone, but it’s progress. I can jump on a train and head off to see friends and I can answer my phone. What I’m saying, is that any stage of social anxiety you find yourself in, there is a way to get to a point where you’re in control a majority of the time, I still panic in big crowds and I always think people are staring but I don’t runaway anymore. It’s a daily struggle most of the time and it makes you stronger as a person, it humbled me, I can pick out people in a crowd that have that look on their face and I immediately know they’re anxious, I’ve talked people through panic attacks, and I’ve helped people find a way to get through anxious situations. I’m always aware of everyone’s body language when I’m in a group, I pay attention to the people I know need it.
I just hope this helps someone who’s in a similar situation, or at least offers them some comfort that they aren’t alone. Your friends love you, talking about it can help, especially so you don’t have to think of lies to tell people for why you can’t go somewhere or do something, because personally now I can just say “I’m not in the right head space for that today” or “my anxiety will not let me do that” and for me that’s such a healthier way of coping. You don’t need to hide it, and it’s never something you need to be ashamed of. I’m more than happy to talk to anyone who wants to know about it, or needs to just vent some worries, I have my email on my contact page so you can send me a message and you can even ask me to delete it straight after or not reply, I’m here for anyone who needs someone.