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Living With Social Anxiety

Living with Social Anxiety is no easy feat. Unfortunately, like many of the topics we covered this month, it’s not something people can easily see. And what you don’t see, you don’t believe. Instead, people often think of it as a person just being an introvert. That is just not the case. To give you a better idea about social anxiety, and what it’s like living with social anxiety, we reached out to Keita. Keita has been living with social anxiety for most of his life, and kindly decided to share his story with us.

A Point of View on Living with Social Anxiety

I don’t want to talk too much about what social anxiety is, about its symptoms and its clinical manifestation. Anyone can look that up on google if they’re curious, so I’m just going to touch lightly on that. Instead, I want to talk about what it’s like to live with and how to cope with it. Or at least to talk a little about how I cope with it.

Social anxiety is something a whole lot of people live with, and the sad thing is that most of us who have it don’t even know until something else gets us into a shrink’s office, for what seems like something else entirely. Only to be told that no, these symptoms you describe isn’t related to the thing you went to see the shrink about…it’s actually social anxiety.

It’s easy to dismiss social anxiety as shyness, or being introverted. It’s easy to dismiss it even to yourself when both those things apply to you. You just don’t realise that the trembling, the upset stomach, the feelings of dissociation, the sensory overload, the uncontrolled emotional responses…among other manifestations, aren’t shyness, but are in fact anxiety. Why would you, when those around you don’t recognise it for what it is?

I wasn’t formally diagnosed until several years after I started working, and the reason I was diagnosed is because I felt that sometimes my emotions were getting the better of me. That’s what sent me to the psychologist’s office – irrational bouts of anger that I attributed to work-related stress instead of a symptom of anxiety. Imagine my surprise to discover that all these years, I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.

Social Anxiety and Day to Day Life

But that brings me to the point: what’s it like living with social anxiety? Besides the obvious discomfort of the symptoms, how does it affect my day-to-day life? Well, to be frank, I don’t think it really did affect me until I started work, and I couldn’t escape social situations anymore. I work in law enforcement, specifically the environmental management inspectorate – that branch of law enforcement that deals with environmental compliance and enforcement. As you can imagine, that brings me into contact – and quite often conflict – with a wide range of people.

Besides law enforcement, we also do a lot of environmental education with communities and schools, as well as celebrations of commemorative days. Like arbour month. Or Earth Day. It’s that second aspect of my work that most often puts me in a position where I have to be social. You can’t do this kind of work effectively if you can’t turn on the charisma and be open and outgoing. If you’re going to encourage and inspire people to want to take care of the environment, you have to be there in that moment with them, share it with them. You can’t fake it.

I cannot begin to tell you the ways in which that kills you by inches when you have social anxiety. It’s a nightmare.

Using Professionalism as a Mask or Shield

It’s easier to cope with the law enforcement aspect, where more often than not, you deal with people one on one. It’s a different kind of interaction. Here, you can hide behind a professional mask. You’re not there as a person, you’re there as your job title: Environmental Management Inspector.  Your role and powers are very clearly defined. You have a strict code of conduct and a procedure to follow.

You have the law as a shield before you and a well-practiced professional persona to keep those anxieties at bay. That’s one of the ways one can cope with social anxiety in the work place: cultivate that professional mask and put it on when appropriate. It takes effort, but it can be done. You’re not there to socialise. You’re there to work. That strict professionalism helps tremendously to keep the anxiety monster locked up. It’s not easy to cope, but it’s easier than the other side of the job…

…dealing with communities and school kids. Under normal circumstances, I would simply avoid people in groups. That was easy at school and university, where I could simply not go to social gatherings, and ignore most people. That’s not an option as an adult, and so I have had to learn some ways of coping. By coping I mean manage the symptoms in such a way to avoid having a full-on panic-attack while dealing with people.

Coping with Social Anxiety

First thing you need to do is make peace with the anxiety. I’ve found that acknowledging it’s there, admitting that it probably always will be, and that sometimes it will win is one of the greatest stress-relievers out there. Accept that it’s part of you instead of berating yourself for having it. Treat it as part and parcel of who you are – because it is – and take it from there. Learn your ‘tells’ – those small signs we all get when the anxiety starts to rise. Learn to monitor yourself for those, and learn how to diffuse the immediate cause of the anxiety.

Stranger getting a bit too close for comfort? Move away slightly. Mob of kids wanting to take selfies with you? Try for a group-photo instead. Always have an escape route. The old ‘I’m getting a phone call’ can be very effective to temporarily escape just long enough to get yourself back on an even keel. Bathroom visits are also very effective. Or the old ‘I need to talk with my colleague over there.’ It also helps to take your colleagues into your confidence. Let them know when you start to feel overwhelmed, and have them take over for a bit, or cover for you for a short time.

Yes, social anxiety can really suck, but it need not be completely debilitating. It can be, but I’ve found that by getting to know its little tides and flows, I can usually manage it just long enough to get through any given event. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes I need a hard-out – as in, escape this situation right now, or have a panic attack in public – and that’s okay. It happens. Give yourself some slack as well as some credit and move on.

Sure, I could change jobs and go do something where I never need to deal with people…but I don’t want to. I love what I do. Having social anxiety doesn’t make my life or my work any easier – just ask my friends how long it can take me to agree to meet new people, or go out to do things – but it’s part of me, and as long as I can live my life around this thing’s little foibles, I’m good. It need not rule your life. It need not define you. You can still have a full and happy life in spite of whole mobs of kids wanting selfies, or community members treating you like an honoured guest.

Take a deep breath. Review those escape routes. Tally those tells. Then smile, step forward, and live.

We’re very thankful that Keita shared his story with us, and we hope that it helps you understand social anxiety a little better.

You can also join us for a relaxing break in our ozone steam sauna. Enjoy 30 minutes of blissful relaxation and calm as you let your worries slip away for a little while. Contact us and book you session today.