“I was never the life of the party.”
My name is “Rose” and I am a 52-year-old woman with Social Phobia.
I was never the life of the party type of person but I did reasonably well in social situations until the age of 19, when I started having panic attacks. The panic attacks would occur without warning and would terrify me. In a short time, my life revolved around the constant threat of possibly having a panic attack in front of another person, and this caused an ongoing, insurmountable anxiety. This anxiety localized to social situations, particularly when I was around people I didn’t know very well or those in an authority position or perceived authority, like my boss or a particularly intelligent, professionally successful acquaintance. I would also have great anxiety around those I perceived were socially competent, those “having their act together.” Soon, after a number of panic attacks, I viewed the world as “everyone is okay, except me.” My body would shake during social encounters, especially my hands. I tried to avoid any situation where I had to eat, drink, or write in public. In my mind I would tell my body to stop shaking, but my body wouldn’t listen and having the perception I had no control over my own body terrified me even more. My body became a stranger to me and I felt held hostage to it.
My constant state of anxiety then evolved to where I couldn’t follow conversations with others because my inner voice became louder than the person I was conversing with. I would tell myself I had nothing to be afraid of but immediately that thought would lead to an avalanche of others: “What if they see how afraid I am?” “I can’t stop shaking…What if they see me shake?”. “What will they think of me if they see me shake?” “If they see me shake, they won’t like me” which then led to the clincher, “They can see me shake and they don’t like me.” Soon this anxiety took over virtually every aspect of my life. I became afraid of being around anyone I didn’t know very well over many years. I felt safest when I was alone but whenever I tried to achieve being alone, I felt lonely and became depressed.
It was years before I even knew there was a name for what was happening to me. I thought I was probably one of the few people in the world “afraid of people.” I felt very ashamed. What kind of person is afraid of everybody? It felt awful and I felt I needed to hide this awfulness and find anyway possible to deal with it so I self medicated before any social event that caused me anxiety. I took over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicine, sleep aids, and alcohol. I tried to dull my senses but also to give my body some other sensation to focus on in the hope I would be too busy fighting the drowsiness, doped feeling and then wouldn’t be able to focus on the anxiety. It didn’t work. The anxiety just got worse and then became compounded with new, detrimental issues that arose with chemically abusing my body. My secret shame of being someone who is “afraid of people,” and now my secret shame of being someone sneaking alcohol, abusing OTC drugs, along with my stark cold, original fear of possibly having panic attacks in public and thus humiliating myself in front of other people…grew.
I was 34 years old when I finally sought help. I found out what was happening to me had a name, Social Phobia. And, with that, I learned I wasn’t alone and that I shouldn’t feel ashamed.
I’ve taken different routes of therapy over the years and obtained something from all of them, but I wish I had learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and joined a CBT group sooner, because joining a CBT group brought me important concrete tools on how to pinpoint my anxiety-provoking thoughts and tools on how to handle them. Instead of running with my thoughts in anticipation of or during an anxiety-provoking event, I learned in group how to break them down to inspect the exact thoughts that give my body trouble and cause the anxiety. I learned many of my anxious thoughts are faulty, even illogical, thinking. I learned how to counter these emotion laden, anxiety-provoking thoughts with logical thinking and lots of questioning. For example, “I feel anxious about this, what’s the worse that could happen?” Then, “Okay, so the worse happens, what would that mean?” Leads to…”Okay, it means that, so does that mean my entire life is ruined?” and so on.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy group taught me how to truly become aware of and break down those thoughts I think that cause my body anxiety. I’ve learned I often draw conclusions about how others are thinking that are not based in their reality but my own internal thoughts about how they think. That’s a big realization for me. Learning and exercising tools of awareness are empowering. Another way CBT group helped me a great deal is when I actually do make a social blunder. Being human, we all make social blunders now and then. It’s part of being human. Before CBT group, I would ruminate and beat myself up over the times I really did or say something embarrassing. CBT group taught me how to healthily deal with my own blunders and recognize it’s okay to be a faulty human. It’s even funny sometimes.
An important part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy group, to me, is all of us support the endeavors of each other. We share what has worked for us and what hasn’t. We often find we have shared the same type of experiences and feelings. And we have a safe place to express ourselves, to learn and to grow in this particular shared theme portion of our life journey. Before, I felt very isolated and alone handling Social Phobia and CBT group has allowed me to meet others facing the same issues. I’ve learned Social Phobia impacts a wide range of people of every walk of life. I was shocked to realize I would’ve never guessed many of our group members had Social Phobia if I met them outside of our group. That, in itself, was a big lesson for me, recognizing I can never tell completely how another person feels inside by just viewing them externally. I always knew this logically but to actually experience this through our CBT group has helped me alot.
Over the years, I learned many coping mechanisms to handle my anxiety in public places. These coping mechanisms led me to feel safe in places where I felt vulnerable to having a panic attack. One is I would become very anxious having someone on the street walk beside me going at the same pace, so I would rush ahead of them or slow my stride so they would pass. I never understood why I felt that way, it was just something I adjusted my life around. CBT has taught me to actually see and counter those thoughts triggering this anxiety. Now I am less focused on the concept of having another person walking with me and am able to maintain my own personal space of sanctuary.
Before learning CBT, I would become very anxious if I sat at a table in the middle of a restaurant and required either a booth or wall behind me. Now, after confronting and challenging my illogical, anxiety-provoking thoughts, I am comfortable seated with my back open to others walking around me. I no longer walk into a restaurant and need to scope the room for the “safer” places to sit.
I would become very anxious when I had to stand in line at a party and serve myself at a buffet in front of others. I would often avoid this by saying I wasn’t hungry. In conjunction to this, I would find it almost impossible to stand, converse with someone, while holding a paper plate of food and eating with a plastic fork. CBT helped me to counter this. My big fear was dropping something and drawing all eyes toward me. And actually, being very human, this has happened more than once. But now I utilize my CBT tools and instead of dwelling on the fact I dropped something, I can now move pass my clumsiness and even find humor in it. A side benefit to this I’ve discovered is when I find humor in awkward situations, most others around me do also.
But I count my greatest gain using CBT as the following: I’m an artist. Before I started CBT, I couldn’t readily draw or sculpt in the presence of others or take the art classes I wanted in order to learn more about creating art. I also couldn’t meet others who had the same interest in art as I have. Now I can take these classes and draw and sculpt in a room full of people I don’t know well. I can now meet and converse with other people I share interests with. And the clincher? I no longer even think anything at all about doing this. And, for me, that’s a very big step.
Do you have a personal story of learning to overcome your social anxiety you wish to share?
If you are a former client of an NSAC-affiliated clinic or clinician, we welcome you to share your story if you believe doing so will be helpful for you. Sharing your story—or not doing so—will have no impact whatsoever on any future services you may seek from any NSAC-affiliated clinic or clinician.
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