A few weeks ago I booked tickets to a free event at the BBC Academy in Birmingham. The thought of getting to hear my girl crush Emma Gannon chair a panel about social media was exciting enough, but getting to go for free was the icing on the cake.
In the lead up to the event I spoke to some fellow bloggers I’d met online and arranged to meet them beforehand. We swapped information via Facebook and met up on the afternoon of the event and spent the rest of the day together.
Although admittedly we didn’t actually get much time to chat on the day it was still nice to put faces to names that I’ve been speaking to on Twitter for months. All in all, it was a successful day. You might say I sound a normal person in a social situation, certainly nothing to write home about, eh?
I stood there mindlessly peeling carrots for a few minutes before the anxiety induced flight or fight response kicked in big time. I stuffed my feet into my trainers, grabbed my bag and ran out the front door with one arm in my denim jacket. I shouted “sorry” from the bottom of the steps and legged it to the train station.
This was just one of maybe fifty scenarios which ended in a similar fashion. Social situations were simply not on my ‘can do’ list for about five years. So how did I transform myself from a socially anxious shell into a flourishing social butterfly? Here are the basics….
The first step is to stand back and take a look at the current state of affairs. Granted this may be difficult to do as you’re probably knee-deep in your own mental illness, and so self-reflection is something you probably don’t want to do. You might even avoid thinking about all of your negative behaviours because it might be a trigger for a depressive episode. I get it.
This is a learning curve and you can’t start on the self-reflection part until you’re really ready. For me this meant a few months of letting my medication kick in before I could honestly take stock of my own behaviours. As soon I was out of the darkest part of my depression I felt stronger and able to change my ways. It’s hard, so don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you need more time to recover before you start this next stage.
When you’re ready, it’s time to identify your safety behaviours. I recently learnt about these from my friend Kelly’s book Social Anxiety to Social Success. She explains that safety behaviours are things that you do because you think they will help you cope better in a social situation. It makes you feel less anxious at the time but it doesn’t actually help you in the long term.
You need to identify your safety behaviours and figure out how to stop them. From going though Kelly’s book and using the worksheets provided I figured out that my safety behaviours are overeating, avoiding eye contact, chewing my lip, picking the skin around my nails and refusing to talk.
I frickin’ LOVE journaling. This blog is effectively my diary and I use it as a emotional outlet almost everyday. I find it’s good to start writing without a particular topic in mind as it allows my mind to wander, find what’s bothering me and dig around to unearth the root of what’s going on.
It’s amazing how quickly I can figure out what’s making me anxious once I put pen to paper. You can use journaling as a way to record when your feel anxious, describe your symptoms and what’s worrying you. Sometimes it takes a few days or even weeks before you can look back and connect the dots between life events and anxious feelings.
In Kelly’s book she’s actually put together a great worksheet which helps you create a list of scenarios which make you feel anxious. She then guides you through them helping you figure out which ones to tackle first. There’s no obligation to jump in feet first – quite the opposite actually – and she’s so good at explaining how to carry out all the small steps to take action against social anxiety. It’s made me realise that there are still a few social scenarios that I’ve been avoiding and now I feel equipped to take them on!
3. Exposure therapy
You’ve probably heard of exposure therapy before, but don’t worry it’s not as scary as it sounds. I’ve actually been using it without the help of a professional and had great results. In fact I didn’t ever realise I was doing it, until I did a short CBT course and was taught what exposure therapy entails.
Exposure therapy means doing the thing which makes you anxious. Wait! I promise it’s not torture! Say you were anxious about going to the supermarket. You wouldn’t just walk straight in and try and act calm and collected. You gradually build up your exposure to the situation by taking small steps.
Maybe one week you drive into the car park every day and stay for a minute longer each day. After a week maybe you can walk up to the front door. You repeat that several times until your anxiety decreases. After a while you’ll be able to walk inside, then after that you’ll be able to walk around for a few minutes. Over time you’ll be able to add on steps bit by bit, and ease yourself into the situation over time.
I’ve been implementing exposure therapy myself and using Kelly’s book as a structured guide for some situations which I’ve found particularly difficult. Kelly does the hard work for you by breaking it down into specific examples and helping you create a plan to conquer your fear one step at a time in bite-size chunks.
4. Track your progress
I’ve already mentioned that Kelly’s book has loads of worksheets including a monthly anxiety tracker so this helps you identify any progress you’ve made, highlight any negative thoughts and compare them month by month. You could also do this with a bullet journal or a mood tracker but Kelly’s book is particularly well laid out and super simple to use.
Tracking your progress is important to make sure that you’re continuing to work in baby steps (it’s easy to get carried away once you see you’re headed in the right direction!) and also to see how far you’ve come. This weekend I had to cancel plans because my anxiety was particularly bad, but it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. When I look back at all the progress I’ve made in the last few years I’m so proud of myself, and taking a social rain-check now and again is totally normal and actually a sign that I know my limits.
5. Create a support network
Having someone to talk to about these things has been a major factor in my recovery from social anxiety. It can feel so isolating to only talk to a doctor every few months, and although my friends are caring they just don’t understand social anxiety because they’ve never experienced it themselves. My mates are all really sociable and outgoing, so they can’t comprehend feeling awkward on a night out or struggling with meeting new people.
That’s why having a community online has been a huge help to me. I talk to people on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook everyday and I always respond to emails so feel free to chat to me online! I’m also part of several Facebook groups which provide a private space to talk about depression and anxiety with other people who are going through the exact same issues as I am.
If you haven’t already, talk to your GP about getting on the waiting list to see a counsellor and make sure your friends and family are aware of your situation. Creating a network of lots of people you can reach out to when you’re struggling is key.