My first experience of social anxiety was at my brother’s birthday party. There were a lot of other kids at the party who were being loud and mischievous, as most 10 year olds are. I felt sick to my stomach and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t understand what it was and it was only once I got home that it went away. I now realise it was anxiety.
From then I realised the way I was reacting to things wasn’t totally ‘normal’. One year, revising for mock exams I got ill with tonsillitis and couldn’t study as much as I wanted to. This kick started what was my worst mental breakdown rendering me paralysed with fear, unable to cope with thoughts that I’d let my parents down, my teachers down and then the guilt around understanding why I got so ‘worked up’ about it.
Shame is something that really took me down a difficult path – no one seemed to understand what I was going through and I had no one who had experienced anything like it.
I was unable to eat or sleep, or leave the house. I remember my beloved mum walking me slowly round the garden in the mornings as a way of distracting me.
As an adult, anxiety affects me every day and particularly at work. For 7 years I worked in a Comms agency which was an extremely high pressured environment with a lot of client interaction and ‘face time’. Which is very challenging for someone with performance anxiety, but something I wanted to do! I was constantly involved in client meetings or calls, and every day was a battle with my anxiety: fighting a constant internal monologue trying to not believe the nasty things that I’d tell myself: how I’m not worthy of a good job, I’m 30-something, I should be over this by now, that I shouldn’t be paid XX amount.
Before one particularly important meeting, I had a full-on panic attack and my line manager happened to walk by. Unfortunately my explanation was met with limited understanding and support, so after a couple of weeks, I was demoted. It was only after I was signed off with stress that they took me seriously and helped find me a job internally which suited me better. All I really needed was someone to listen to what it was that I wanted to achieve and understand that I still wanted the same things as others did (i.e. to be promoted), just not within the confines and trajectory that the company had already mapped out.
Two years ago, my mum was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Dealing with the worry about her slow and incurable demise as well as the concern for my Dad’s wellbeing (who is now caring for her) is obviously valid. However, it has really kicked my anxiety into gear and it’s crossing over into a lot of other aspects including day-to-day work, relationships and travelling. With travelling, I absolutely love visiting new countries so this is a tough one! But I refuse to let this piece of my anxiety stop me from enjoying what I love to do: seeing new landscapes and cities, and eating new foods.
Nowadays, I am becoming better at telling myself that ‘anxiety’ is not me, and I am not it. Viewing it as an external ‘thing’ helps me deal with it better as is realising that it will, with practice of mindfulness, diminish over time. This makes it more manageable and I can address it well enough to curb it before things spiral out of control. It helps that I now work in a respectful company as part of the HR function and I’m lucky to have found a brilliant counsellor specialising in behavioural CBT. We work together to confront my worst thoughts by challenging them. At the moment, my ‘anxiety’ is telling me that my voice will break during meetings, I’ll forget what I’m saying and that people will think I’m stupid. Before I go into a meeting I take 5-10 minutes to write down all of the things that I know to be factual and not fiction. Things like: I have a mouth, I’m able to make sound, I have ears so I can listen. It sounds a bit silly but it really works for me.
It took me a long time to open up, particularly at work, as I felt a lot of shame around my condition. To be honest, I still do. However, as soon as I talk to someone who is genuinely interested in how I’m feeling and makes an effort to understand, it lifts my mood and makes me realise I’m not alone.