Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Social Anxiety Strikes Again: How School Starting Can Provoke Anxiety

Over the past year, my social anxiety has gotten a lot less crippling than it used to be. I still am "the quiet one" and don't feel comfortable saying much when there are more than two other people in a conversation, but all the meeting new people and on-the-spot introductions I've had to give while bouncing between different internships this year has taken the edge off of the anticipatory anxiety I experience before a social interaction. It's been a sort of unintentional exposure therapy.

Along with that, I've noticed that the other hallmark of my social anxiety -- worrying about all everything I might have done wrong for days, weeks, months after the event has occurred has also decreased as my general anxiety level has been decreasing thanks to vitamins and medication. I used to obsess over interviews or conversations or things I said in class for days after the event, replaying what I said in my head and trying to remember how people reacted, then trying to gauge how horrifically on the social faux pas scale I had failed. The beauty of this is that then I'll be even more afraid to say anything the next time I'm with people because I 1) start pre-over-analyzing everything I could say and how I might regret it later, and thus 2) talk myself out of saying anything, making me feel anxious about how I must look either rude or like a quiet, mousy lame person that nobody will want to be friends with.

Ah, social anxiety. How I love you.

Well, things have been a lot better than before -- I order coffee and thank waiters and go up to cashiers to pay for things, all stuff I was terrified of doing a couple years ago. I can shake hands somewhat less awkwardly than before, I spoke in a staff meeting without time to prep a speech, and I even made (appropriate, tasteful) jokes in a recent job interview...Who is she! All the same, I still have socially anxious tendencies lurking in me. When you grow up with this crippling condition, it tends to shape the way you think and live life.

If there is a self-checkout in a store, I always use it. If somebody makes an offhand comment to me in a store, I will reply with an incoherent one-syllable mutter because I'm taken by surprise and don't know how to respond. Unless I really vibe with a person or group, I tend to present my mousy self. When I talk to strangers, I sometimes can't manage to make my voice louder than a stage whisper.

As I mentioned in another post, I'm in the midst of searching for a job, which brings out the anxious mess in me. After two months of searching and a couple of almost-wins, I've realized there are some areas where my job skill set has some gaping holes (perhaps not surprising since I was a humanities major.) Since I currently don't have any job leads, I decided to sign up for a course at a community college to get some additional professional training. Tonight was the first time the class met, and the whole ordeal brought out the Hot Anxious Mess that has been lurking in me, periodically reemerging at different points in the job search.

I forgot how much school stresses me out. I love learning and I enjoyed listening to the lecture...until the professor started asking more and more questions. At first I hoped they were just a way for her to bring up a new topic because she would answer the questions herself. But then she started to pose them to the class, and there were only seven of us to answer. I started to get more and more stressed out. At the start of class, my mind had thoughts to share should the occasion arise, but they were more philosophical questions. The questions the teacher was asking required one-word spit outs that I was too flustered to come up with. In one horrible moment, she locked eyes with me as she asked something. You know when, in books, the writer says a character opened and closed his or her mouth like a fish? That was basically me. I was speechless. Too stunned to come up with words and too clenched with fear to utter them even if I had had something to say.

As the class went on, more and more happened to skyrocket my anxiety. We were supposed to have a break partway through class and I really needed to use the restroom, so I left. When I came back, the class had resumed like I wasn't there and everyone was in the midst of an activity while I spend ten minutes trying to figure out where the power button for the computer was.

More questions. More silence from me. Other people finally started to open up. I tried to nod and occasionally utter some syllable, but I grew increasingly embarrassed about not talking. I got the feeling some people were noticing, including the professor. I felt so stressed. And when another student made a passing comment to me, my mind was completely blank on how to respond, so I just muttered, "Oh." Then worried I seemed hateful or stuck up.

There was an unclear assignment given for "homework" and a lot of vague directions. I felt like I was treading water and I just wanted to get out. In the back of my mind, I could already feel all the existential career and life questions that are always hanging out under the bleachers of my mind, waiting to come up and bug me -- I could feel them banging on the closet door I had locked them behind to focus on taking notes. Should I have studied this stuff in school? Why didn't I choose a different major? Should I go to grad school? What is my calling?

It's all pretty overwhelming and I doubt I'll ever have the answers.

Class finally ended and my social anxiety came out again in classic fashion: While part of me went into the class hoping to make friends, once I was faced with the possibility of human interaction, I was terrified. I prayed nobody would end up walking the same direction to the parking garage as me so I'd have to force conversation or feel awkward and antisocial avoiding them. So then I consciously avoided the chance to bond with anyone.

But sometimes it's just one day at a time. One step out of your comfort zone at a time. We're not superheroes. We can't do everything at once. Fighting these battles is a process, and sometimes we -- I don't want to say take a step back...more like the not-so-recovered parts of you that you were able to mask before, they sometimes come out when you're placed in a stressful situation. Which makes sense because stress affects all of us, whether mentally ill or not. It throws us off our game and brings out insecurities and can leave us speechless.

I keep reminding myself it was just day one, which is always overwhelming. And that I should be proud of myself for pushing myself by enrolling. But it's easy to just beat myself up for not being social enough. And then tell myself I'll never have more friends or be successful because I'm too shy. That doesn't really help anything though -- it just perpetuates the cycle. I am bullying myself into being scared to live my life. That's cruel and wrong. What's more is it's counter-productive.

Part of me wishes I'd never signed up for the stupid class -- I hate being stressed and having to anticipate something unpleasant periodically. But I need to keep growing, stretching, pushing. Otherwise you become boxed in by fear.

I still am boxed in any many ways, but I've dug my fair share of tunnels out.

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