I love when people dig beneath the surface.
In a recent conversation with a friend, he revealed to me his profound level of social anxiety. At parties, he’d always stick around for a bit, crack a few jokes, and then withdraw. I always thought he was avoiding certain people or an unpleasant conversation, or maybe I didn’t think much of anything until he mentioned his condition. After all, I hadn’t known him growing up, so maybe this was just how he was when he was at parties. Whatever the reason, I knew that at a certain point in the evening, I’d look around, and he wouldn’t be there. I enjoyed talking to him, so I didn’t love when he’d leave. I’d always want more time, the way I always want more time with all the people I love.
When he told me about his social anxiety, I realized what had happened on all of those evenings. At a certain point, he couldn’t handle being around people anymore. He couldn’t handle the conversations, and he decided that the best course of action was to seek solitude. When his quota had been met, he needed some time to recharge, or maybe he just needed to sleep it off. Usually after some time alone, I’m able to reenter an environment filled with people, but every now and again I struggle with a group setting, and I can’t find my bearings no matter how long I hang around.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I also have social anxiety. Most people don’t notice it when they’re around me. I cover it up because I’m afraid to let anyone but my closest friends witness the moments when I’m falling apart, or when I just need to remove myself from a situation. It can go one of two ways when my anxiety strikes. Sometimes, I’m able to keep it in check, and I can stay at the party, even if I’m not feeling like myself. I’ve been able to calm myself down and stay, something that takes a lot of willpower, but it can be done if you know enough about your anxiety and its triggers. It also helps to have a strategy. I’ll look for an easy conversation to start off with, and then work my way into feeling social.
If the anxiety spikes, and I can’t control it, I know that I’ll have to leave because I don’t want anyone to know what’s going on. One of the best things I’ve realized is that I don’t have to stay. If I have to leave, I just go for it. Sometimes, I’ll think of an excuse, but more recently I’ve been better about being honest. I’d rather not lie, and if my confession allows someone else to open up about their struggles, I’d say that’s a win. I want to help people as much as I can, and not much is accomplished when you keep these things to yourself.
I’ve always viewed it as a sign of weakness to have anxiety, a flaw in my DNA that keeps me from being the fully-formed person I want to be. It can be a challenge to live with, but I also know that it keeps me grounded, and that it’s kept me from being too full of myself and overconfident. If there’s a silver lining to my anxiety, it’s that it makes me more human than I’ve ever wanted to be. I’ve never felt more vulnerable, weaker, and uncomfortable than when my anxiety flares. It helps me to realize that I can’t just rely on myself, even if I’ve always wanted to be that kind of person. Sometimes, you need the help of others, and anxiety forces you to make a choice. Either you can stay by yourself and allow it to build and overtake you, or you can talk to friends and family about it, weakening the grip that it has over your life.
Keeping anxiety at bay requires a lot of energy. Whether I’m having a full-blown anxiety attack or I’m trying to keep it from getting to that level, my body is on high alert, and I feel my control starting to slip. I’m struggling to maintain my grip on that imaginary handle, to keep my hand from slipping off, even as the sweat from the exertion makes it more and more difficult. I’m trying to hold on until it’s over, until I feel the tension subside, and I can think rationally once again.
And then I come down.
When your anxiety ends, I’d love to tell you that you feel great, and that the sense of relief is spectacular. The sense of relief is amazing, but along with that feeling comes complete and utter fatigue. Your body was full of adrenaline, your heart was pounding in your chest, and suddenly everything stops. You weren’t in mortal danger, but your brain told you that you were, and now that you’re out of harm’s way, all the energy you spent trying to hold yourself together leaves you, and you having nothing left to give. You barely have enough energy to get off the coach.
Maybe that’s the real reason to leave the party. The anxiety will make you self-conscious and antisocial, but when it fades, you definitely won’t feel like being around people. All you’ll want to do is just sit and relax, throw on a mindless TV show, and enjoy the fact that you made it through another attack. Bask in that accomplishment. Each episode you survive (and you always survive it) builds up your strength, even as each attack fills your head with doubt that you’re strong enough to make it to the other side. I’ve wondered about the long-term effects of anxiety, and more than once I’ve said, “It’s going to kill me one of these days.” I hope it doesn’t, but I do wonder if all this extra-strength worrying is taking its toll.
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying, but I know I’ve made significant progress. I have to make sure that I never forget that. These days, I’m comfortable enough to walk into most social situations, and even if I have a moment or an episode, I know I can recompose bring myself back from the edge. I’m much better at managing my anxiety than I’ve ever been, and I’m working on seeing social situations as non-threatening, especially when I know that they’re just a gathering of people, people just like me. A few of the attendees might even have the same problems that I do, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll end up talking about them. Thanks for reading.