My heart was pounding. My hands were shaking. I was probably having a mini (or full blown) panic attack. I wasn’t giving a speech, or in any imminent danger. No, this was something far more pedestrian. I was at a house party with some friends, playing an after dinner game. This confounding flight response was triggered when it was my turn and all eyes in the room turned to me. And just thinking about other people seeing me squirm made it infinitely worse.
Entering a big party or a room full of people usually had the same effect — the unease and panic would just wash over me almost instantly.
It made no sense. I’m definitely more of an introvert, but have always enjoyed the occasional party and time out with friends. At work, I regularly presented to small and large groups , including senior executives. I led teams. I might occasionally get nervous, but never to the point of the crippling anxiety I had recently started experiencing in social situations.
It started a few years ago. It was extremely frustrating and I wasn’t sure what suddenly triggered it.
I tried to logically reason it out. Both before, during and after these attacks. Didn’t help.
I tried my hardest to push it away and just ignore my feelings. I had been good at doing that my whole life. That only made it worse.
I tried hard not to think about it, to not anticipate this happening next time. Again, no luck.
One thing I knew for sure was the answer didn’t lie in avoiding situations that triggered this. As tempting as it was to become a social pariah, I knew this obviously wasn’t a long term solution.
It sounds like such a trivial thing, but it paralyzed me, made me lose confidence in myself, and also affected relationships and friendships. It was definitely a sign of some deep inner turmoil. It really forced me to focus and look inside for answers.
And thankfully, the answers came. I finally decided to write about this in the hope that it may be helpful to others. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not experiencing the same situational anxiety I was. But we all have demons (stress, anxiety, depression, etc.) and I feel the insights I gleaned from my experience can hopefully apply in some of these situations.
Do not run away from it
As I alluded to above, if there is a particular situation that triggers stress or anxiety within you, as uncomfortable as it might make you, trying to avoid such situations is usually not the answer. You may be able to avoid them in the short term, but you’re not addressing the deeper issue, and not developing the grit needed to handle stressful situations in the future.
Do not personalize it
Whatever you do, don’t make the anxiety “yours”. Be careful how you refer to it, either in your inner dialogue or to others. You may be feeling anxious, but it is not “your” or “my” anxiety. By making it personal, we risk making it a part of our identity, and making it part of our story. It isn’t. You’re a glorious being that’s feeling anxious or stressed. Instead of saying “my anxiety”, use “I’m feeling anxious”.
Don’t try to suppress or numb the pain
Don’t pretend you’re not feeling anxious, or try to suppress it. You just want it to go away. You want to be strong. It makes you feel like crap so you’re trying your best to drown it out somehow. This won’t work. I also think it makes things worse in the longer term as these pent up emotions get stronger over time. I believe this is what may have happened to me, where years and years of ignoring and running away from underlying issues with stress and anxiety suddenly bubbled up to the surface and led to this extreme and crippling social anxiety.
I really mean it. The next time you feel the pangs of anxiety or stress, instead of trying to suppress them, just silently thank these uncomfortable emotions and permission to “flow”. This is another way of accepting them, but in this case you’re embracing them completely. Give these energies a free pass to flow within you. The goal here isn’t to instantly feel better (and you probably won’t). In fact, quite the opposite as you really come face to face with your emotions. However, over time, this will act as a release valve, and will help create some “space” so you can (even if for an instant), step out and just be a witness to these emotions without getting caught up in them. “OK, there it is, I’m feeling extremely anxious right now”. It’s another way of bringing mindfulness to your experience. Let’s face it — we’re all a mishmash of messy emotions and feelings, both pleasant and not so pleasant. It’s a part of being human. We can’t always control these emotions, so let’s accept them and let them flow, instead of running away from them. This is true courage and strength.
To be clear, it’s not about being “positive”, or trying to feel good. That would be trying to run away or suppress the pain. You’re just trying to acknowledge the emotions, not judging them and giving them a free pass to manifest, no matter how shitty they make you feel.
I know, easier said than done. But this is probably the best way, or perhaps the only way to get through this.
If certain situations are triggers for you, try emulating them by vividly visualizing these situations in the comfort of your own home (or wherever you’re comfortable). Meditate on them. Imagine you’re there. What do you see? How do you feel? Can you feel the anxiety or stress rise? Think of this as practice. Practice thanking the anxiety, visualize being there, and really let your emotions flow. Again, the goal isn’t to drive the anxiety away. It’s just to be a witness to this experience and to understand that it is within you and giving it an “outlet” to express itself.
Do this again and again. It’s like training a muscle. With time, you’ll get better at creating some space between you and the emotion you’re feeling.
Celebrate the present
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, try to be present. Live in the now. Celebrate this moment! A lot of times, without realizing it, we are just lost in our internal chatter that further churns up stress and anxiety. Be a witness to these emotions, but also try and bring your attention to the present. Mindfulness and meditation is very widely written about and practiced today. I think some of the best writing on this topic is in the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
Listen to it
Don’t run away from it, don’t suppress it, thank it, be present. When you do this, you will feel the energy rush through you. When you do, try and listen to what the stress or anxiety is trying to tell you. Listen to your gut. What are you really afraid of? What will happen if these fears come true? What happens then? Dig deep! You may find that you might have to get through several layers of issues to get to the root cause. The answers may not come every time, but make sure to listen and try to really dig into this every time you feel this way.
I used the above to go through a pretty intense process of detoxification and self-discovery over several months. It was uncomfortable, but I finally came face to face with my emotions and underlying issues. For me, it revealed the fear of being negatively judged, which further revealed the fear of not being accepted, not liked, and of being ostracized. It led to the realization that I wasn’t always my authentic self in public situations, with a fear lurking in the background that I may get “caught” at any moment. It also led to a much deeper insight below.
I feared rejection, and lack of acceptance because deep down, I wasn’t accepting myself. I was highly critical of myself, and any mistakes I made, and I did this unconsciously throughout the day. It was auto-pilot behavior that probably got instilled in me somehow as a kid, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it most of the time. If I didn’t accept myself, how was I every going to expect anyone to accept me?
And something tells me I wasn’t alone in doing this. So ask yourself the same question. Do you truly and unconditionally love and accept yourself? Almost like a marriage vow, but to your self!
Interestingly, while writing this, I came across a great story on Medium yesterday on a slightly unrelated topic of turning your dreams to reality (here). It refers to the book The Untethered Soul, in which the author Michael Singer gives an example of a man with a thorn in his arm. It hurts badly, and even more so when he touches it, so instead of pulling it out, he structures his whole life around keeping his arm safe and away from harm. That’s a beautiful analog that pretty much sums up what I‘m trying to say.
So take your medicine, thank your thorns and pull them out! You owe it to yourself and the world to be fully alive and present as your most awesome and glorious self.