Once upon a time, a woman confident upon the stage, attended a TEDx event. The woman wove her way through the crowd to find her seat and settled in. The speakers were engaging, the topics diverse and she sat at rapt attention. At the 1st break, the woman stepped out for fresh air. Except that it wasn’t fresh and there was no air. Everyone else was taking all of the air. She found herself swallowed up in the crowd and each time she re-established her personal space, the school of fish moved in again like a moving wall. She spent every break wishing for a few moments of silence. Even going outside the building brought no piece, the fish simply found another route to the “food”. The woman in this story is me and the story is about social anxiety, panic and the effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) on the ability to persevere.
The manifestation of social anxiety, PTSD/panic upon my body varies but most often includes sweating, shallow breathing, trembling throughout my entire body,hyper-vigilance about my personal space and a racing pulse. Most days, I am able to utilize my self-soothing mechanisms to restore my sense of safety: yogic breathing, finding a quiet place, progressive relaxation of my muscles, zentangle, etc. This day WAS NOT one of those days, at least not within the fish bowl. Yet I have made two important promises in terms of my life with mental health diagnoses:
1. I will live my life joyfully in spite of living with my diagnoses.
2. I will be honest about those times when in spite of the efforts, the dragon comes to visit and about how I have learn to pet the the dragon.
A relationship with social anxiety is an ongoing conversation.
I learned the power of my ANYWAY and the power of my NO WAY. My ANYWAY acknowledges that I am scared and feeling threatened, my ANYWAY knows that I can leave an event if I need to and while disappointment may be present, the disappointment will not be directed at me. My anyway will walk through the fire more often than not to move toward my goals. I learned that telling myself NO WAY beyond this point is OK as well.
I am implementing changes: Prior to an event, I will check out the venue, take time to find the exits and determine the traffic flow. I have added a white noise app to my phone and have earbuds ready when the noise becomes too overwhelming. I have developed a code word with my friends that allows them to know when I am overwhelmed: “I need a quiet moment” and then use a number scale that allows the person with me to know how high the anxiety is. Anything over a 7 means that I am working all of my coping mechanisms but they have not yet helped. Eight means prepare to leave, nine means we need to go now and ten means take me to the hospital.
Exposure therapy has its place.
The choice of anyway can move us through our fear. Yet being self-aware does not require pushing through to the extent that we heighten our fear. A key to mental health recovery is acknowledging what exists, doing what we can and love ourselves enough to forgive ourselves and start again. Some days we don’t need to fight to exhaustion.
“Life is made of fear. Some people eat fear soup three times a day. Some people eat fear soup all the meals there are. I eat it sometimes. When they bring me fear soup to eat, I try not to eat it, I try to send it back. But sometimes I’m too afraid to and have to eat it anyway.”
― Martin Amis, Other People
How do you cope with social anxiety?
Resources: Yogic breathing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZglRGpq_WU
White noise app: White Noise Light
Zentangle – creative meditation: http://www.zentangle.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7&Itemid=117