So you’re holding on to your used tissue with sweat gathering on the back of your neck in a fully air-conditioned room. You are painfully aware of everyone around you, of every laugh and every voice. The dustbin is literally ten steps away, but it feels like ten miles. You know you should just get up and throw it away. You know it shouldn’t be such a big deal, and that any “normal” person would have done it minutes ago without so much as a conscious thought, but you’re afraid.
You don’t feel good in your clothes. You’re afraid you walk funny and you’re just one step away from everyone noticing. You don’t want to put yourself on display. So you crumple the tissue in your fist instead and hide it in your bag to dispose of when the pressure isn’t so intense.
Or you’re the one with the questions that never get past your lips because God forbid everyone in the room ever focuses on you.
If this has ever been you, or if you’ve been caught in any similar situation, I must inform you, dearly beloved, that you are suffering from severe social anxiety. But before you begin to scratch your head on what that could mean, you should first know that you’re one out of about a hundred thousand cases per annum in Nigeria alone, and millions across the globe, so you are definitely not alone.
Social anxiety/phobia is the third leading mental health disorder in the world, characterized by excessive anxiousness, fear of social interactions, phobia for interacting with strangers, overanalyzing your performance in social situations, pessimism towards social encounters, and even crying or temper tantrums. You may have experienced a few physical symptoms also, such as a frequent racing pulse whenever you’re placed in social situations, trembling, sweating, nausea, a parched throat, or in extreme cases dizziness, muscle tension, trouble catching your breath at times, and even body dysmorphia (an illusion of a deformed body part were no such deformity exists)…
Needless to say, social anxiety can be a horrible burden to bear. It makes everyday activities like eating at a restaurant, entering a room where people are already seated, starting conversations with people you like, making eye contact when talking, speaking up in groups, being observed while performing an activity, etc. ridiculously difficult. There are a number of reasons why it happens, some tracing back to genetics or an overactive brain, or even the environment. The sequelae to this condition are often poor self-esteem, negativism, depression, substance abuse, isolative behavior, and suicidal thoughts urges.
FINALLY, THE CURE…
Social anxiety may seem manageable at first, but after a while, it gets really tiring. You want to live, to laugh, to have fun like everyone else. You don’t want to obsess over silly little things. This is where the good news comes because, unlike some other mental conditions, social anxiety is relatively easy to treat.
It’s all about deliberateness. You have to deliberately make a decision not to obsess so much. Sounds too easy? Well, most things in life are easier than they first appear. Now, practical steps to achieving this goal.
We all need to let out emotions. Not everyone is comfortable with baring their souls to another, but you still need to let it out. Engage yourself in emotionally purgatory exercises e.g. expressive writing (in a diary or journal), keeping an audio journal, painting, singing, whatever helps you relieve stress.
Two, get yourself that one friend you can talk to. It doesn’t have to be a clique. It could even be a family member. Have them help you stay in check, and be your cheerleader when you need a push. In order to do this effectively, they have to truly know where you’re coming from and how much you need this intervention. Don’t hold back from letting them know the truth.
Also, take slow and steady steps in getting to know new people. Your anxiety might be born from bad experiences. Perhaps you tried to relate with someone and you got negative feedback. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, but it may mean you need to change your style of approach. Do not overcompensate when meeting strangers -no one likes a chatterbox. Study people before speaking. It guarantees smoother interactions which is medicine for your self-esteem.
Try new things! Start tiny, then small, then bigger, then bigger until you’re able to do the biggest things you thought you’d never do. Talk to that one new person today, then include yourself in small groups later on. Soon navigating large crowds will be a walk in the park for you.
Lastly, find something that gives you peace. This is never stressed enough. Be it faith, fiction or fantasy, find a safe place to channel your energy whenever you still feel awkward around people. It will save you from a lot of unnecessary overthinking.
Now, if none of these prove helpful, there’s still hope. It might not be a popular concept on this side of the world, be too shy/cultural to seek help. There are professionals whose job it is to help you overcome this battle, as nearby as UCH. Let them do their job and you’ll be thankful you did.
It might be a slow process, but you’ll get there. And while you heal don’t forget to be patient with you. Water your mind with love and watch it sprout joy. You deserve that much, and soon all your anxiety will be water in your fist – gone without you even realizing it.
– OREOLUWA OPEOLU