At one point or another, everyone has reason to swallow a few butterflies. For some though, anxiety is a persistent force – steering our decisions and controlling lives.
Constant worry: predicting the future, imagining all the things that could go wrong.
An inability to switch off, your mind spinning into overdrive; no matter how hard you try, your brain chalk-full of unhelpful thoughts.
Panic when faced with social encounters.
All uncontrollable. You’re aware that your feelings are irrational, yet logic and reason offer no escape.
I tried logic… and reason. In the end, it was only by understanding the mechanisms of my anxiety that I could start to manage its impact. Nowadays I can live above it, rather than suffer underneath.
The Shy Guy
Growing up, I was always the quiet one. I am unsure whether the anxiety grew as I got older, or if it was just simpler to live with at that age. Being nervous seemed like almost nothing – kids just got labelled as shy. Arriving in big-bad adulthood though, you stop being dealt that card…
The first time I can remember my anxiety having any significant impact was at a karate class. I had been doing karate from around the age of five, right the way through school. At first all was well – as I got older though, I became increasingly nervous during each session.
Eventually, I was thinking about every class well in advance. Dreading them all, it wasn’t long before I broke; building them up so negatively was creating massive pressure – in the end I just stopped going. A couple of months longer, and I could have earned my black belt…
To this day, I still can’t understand why karate suddenly made me so nervous: that’s the thing with anxiety, the source is often difficult to place.
Looking back now, dealing with my discomfort by avoiding the cause would prove to be a behaviour that grew over time (more on this later).
The Boys’ Choir (aaargh…)
My second ‘big anxiety botch-up’ came towards the end of primary school.
Perhaps an indicator that things weren’t too bad, I used to take part in all the school shows – I even sang in a few of the main roles! It was those performances that encouraged my music teacher; she registered me for audition at the national boys’ choir. Happily, or so I thought, my audition was a success.
Being a new member involved attending a weekend-long boarding event; as my first time away alone, this would remove me hugely from my comfort zone. Rather than taking this in my stride, again I broke down; my parents were called to collect me early.
Another opportunity wasted, because I let my anxiety rule. This was the point that I realised my feelings were beginning to get in the way.
Moving on from primary school and into secondary education, the inevitable gift of puberty arrived – along with a few emotional realisations. I’ll go into more detail in future blogs, but let’s just say I figured out quick: I was gay.
In a panic, my immediate instinct was to retreat from my feelings. Awful as it seems now, that’s how I reacted. I had turned my identity into a massive secret, that I would now spend the next eight years hiding from.
Add this all to some pre-existing anxiety? Not the ideal mix.
My anxiety at school eventually reached the point where I knew I had to act. After a traumatic class presentation, I had decided to speak with my mum; this would be the only time that we discussed the problem.
I explained that I was experiencing social anxiety, and that it was really beginning to get me down. Unsure of what to do exactly, she took me to our local GP. After a lengthy chat, the doctor referred me on for some talking therapy.
Great! Progress! Not quite…
The waiting time for an appointment was long. Really long. I began to obsess over what the therapy would be like; perhaps I didn’t need it, what if they thought I was wasting time? Again, I let my mind run away: it became karate-class stress on an epic scale.
‘I’m fine, it’s better now mum – I don’t need to go.’
I never attended that appointment. Infuriatingly, I had allowed my anxiety to stand in the way of help that I really needed.
Arguably, the worst part of my whole experience was to suffer in silence. After the incident with the referral, I insisted that I was fine; I didn’t discuss my anxiety with another living soul – until I met my boyfriend, at the age of twenty.
When suffering from anxiety, there are usually few outward signs of stress; your imagination almost always exaggerates the physical symptoms. You can feel like you’re breaking down, the person in front of you might hardly notice.
Eventually, you end up with a reputation for being quiet; people have no idea about what’s really going on.
The People Pleaser
Anxiety can result in a crippling lack of confidence when faced with social encounters.
I became increasingly self-conscious when engaging my peers in conversation. Exerting more mental energy to consider how I was appearing, meant that I often lost focus on the content of discussions; I would then find it difficult to contribute properly. In group conversations, my input became minimal.
What I especially dreaded was any kind of conflict. Standing up for an opinion innately requires a degree of self-confidence. I was rarely opinionated and would actively seek to appease the views of those around me.
Fearful of what people might think if I upset them, I engaged in a vicious circle of worsening communication.
Always looking ahead, considering all the things that could possibly go wrong; an unhelpful thinking style that served to further enforce my avoidance behaviours.
Whenever I perceived the potential for stress or anxiety, I would simply not place myself in that situation. In the long run, this only damaged my confidence further.
Being prepared is one thing, but I had the habit of taking things to an extreme. Being afraid of anything bad happening, I would seek to prepare for everything. Rather than being able to enjoy life, I spent most of my time planning it – in obsessive detail. Ironically, spontaneity is now something that I treasure!
Even going to the shops, I would obsess over details like parking or what I was going to say at the checkouts. Once there, I would feel like all eyes were on me – in reality, everyone was focussed on their own shopping lists! All I would think about was getting home, escaping the situation quickly.
An essential part of facing your anxiety and making it smaller is by actively challenging your comfort zones; this kind of exposure therapy has played the biggest part in making things better for me.
The next big challenge: university is daunting for most. When you’re a nervous wreck in general? Yeah, it’s scary. You’re thrown into a brand-new mix of people, no-one knows anyone and building new relationships is vital.
Thankfully, I was now beginning to get a grip on things. I forced myself to start those conversations and soon had a circle of friends. Overall, the beginning of university life could’ve been much worse – but it could also have gone better.
A significant part of my course involves being out on clinical placement. Face-to-face contact with patients and staff has given me the opportunity to grow in confidence. I was also working at the time, this too boosted my self-esteem.
Ah, Subway… a bitter-sweet relationship that lasted the best part of three years. The folk that I worked with were great, but the job itself had its downsides (future blog, anyone?). Perhaps the biggest thing gained from all those hours though, was to see people in a new light. I changed my social perspective, and allowed this to drive a new growth in confidence.
Long story short, I learnt that some people are nice – some people aren’t. I couldn’t keep everyone happy. Although many of the not-so-nice folk happened to appear confident, I knew I didn’t want to become them. I had to find a balance, between being too nice – and being an absolute arse.
My job provided me with a platform, to challenge myself socially and develop my communication again. Most of all, it gave me a sense of self-worth.
So, My Advice
The first step in challenging your anxiety is to recognise when something is wrong. In reading this article, you might have already achieved that! Importantly, you should then transform your realisation into acceptance. You understand that yes, you have anxiety. That’s okay, you can now do something to make it better.
The quickest and most simple way to start, is by sharing your experiences with someone you trust. Whether that be a family member or a friend, you’d be surprised at how much better you feel just by opening-up to a person close to you. We are all social creatures, a problem shared really is a problem halved. You will also find that this person can hold you accountable for your progress, it’s a lot harder to just give up when you’re now on someone else’s radar.
Even the process of vocalising what’s been going around in your head for however-long, immediately makes the issue seem smaller. Our minds can make the bad things seem huge, by obsessing over them on our own. Heck, go ahead and tell your dog if you want to!
Realise that it’s okay to be nervous. People aren’t going to judge you if you stammer during a presentation, or go a bit red when under pressure. In trying to hide these natural responses to stress, we only make ourselves feel worse.
Whenever you begin to feel anxious, breathe. Stop. Ask yourself exactly what’s causing you to react in this way. Challenge your automatic belief that something is wrong, or could go wrong. Relax, and take things as they come.
When you make an improvement, however small, recognise that. Be proud of your achievements and build on your success. Don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go perfectly – in fact, stop reflecting on the negatives altogether.
Push yourself, if only slightly, every single day. Go to a different place for lunch, look a stranger in the eye. That sort of thing. Keep the ball rolling.
Be the ‘yes man’ (or lady). Don’t allow anxiety to prevent you from doing great things. If an opportunity arrives, do you want to do it? Yes? Then go for it, don’t stop to think about what might happen. Provided it’s legal, of course!
Realise that you can’t please everyone. You are a lovely person. You can go be lovely, without allowing others to get you down. If they don’t like something that you say? That’s their problem – not yours. Be yourself and be proud.
Don’t be afraid to get help. The fact that you’re feeling the way you are is validation enough. Don’t shy away from services that can make things better for you.
A Final Word
To live in the grip of anxiety is no life at all. In challenging ourselves to overcome our fears, it is possible to achieve a better quality of life. I still exist with anxiety every day, but I recognise now that I am the one in control.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, or my story seems familiar, I hope that this advice can help. Your biggest step towards happiness will be in accepting a personal challenge. Grab the bull by the horns, and show it you mean business.
Please, feel free to contact me if you want to chat; or share your experiences in the comments below.