Let’s talk about social anxiety

It took me a long time to publish my last post. I spent months trying to start it until I finally felt brave enough. I must confess that for a few hours after it was published I felt my anxiety levels rising. No-one responded. Nothing on Twitter or Facebook. Was everyone horrified at what I’d said?  What had I done?

I’m glad to say that those feelings soon subsided as friends and colleagues chimed in their support both public and private. A few mentioned that seeing me talk about these things helped them too. Knowing that you’re not alone is a powerful thing. That can be hard with mental health because we don’t talk about it. When it strikes you feel alone and isolated which makes everything worse.

So I thought I might try to talk more. Many people don’t know what it is like to have a mental health problem and I didn’t go into many details. Reading up on conditions doesn’t help much. Often it is just jargon but even then most things listed as specific conditions are really just buckets of symptoms that you get slotted into. What I call social anxiety should resonate with others but the specifics can and will differ.

I think that there is a lot of crossover between introversion and social anxiety. In fact I’m not really sure where the line is technically. I see the difference being how you feel when you’re around other people. For me it is often terror that you’re judging me for what I’m doing. Here’s an example.

Two months ago all of Mozilla gathered at Disneyworld. My trip there pretty much blew. Due to delays it took nearly 24 hours to cross the U.S. and after I arrived it took another 6 hours or so for the hotel to have a room for me. So I wasn’t exactly in my best possible state. The second night there was a big party. Aside from some near panic attacks walking to the venue (I don’t do well in slow-moving queues, despite being British) I managed to have a good time. Mainly I stuck with people who I knew really well. But after I got back to the hotel I was exhausted so I resolved to have a quiet night the next day and regain my energy for the final party.

So the next night I went out to find a quick bite in the middle of working on stuff in my hotel room. But I couldn’t. Everywhere I went there were Mozilla people. All of them staring at me, wondering why I was out by myself, why I wasn’t hanging out with others like normal people. I had to make it look like I had a reason. I was going to the gift shop to look for gifts for family. I surely wasn’t going to eat by myself because what sort of recluse does that?! Everytime I thought I had found somewhere without people I knew, someone showed up and I had to escape.

It was futile. I went back to the hotel and looked over the rather poor room service menu. But then I thought, no, this is rubbish. They aren’t really staring at you, they aren’t judging you, no-one is going to bat an eyelid if you choose to eat by yourself. I knew this logically and so I just had to act on it. So I went out again. And again I failed to find food. I just couldn’t do it. It was too much. There were people everywhere. What if they asked if I wanted to join them? I’d have to come up with some excuse for why I didn’t want to without offending them. My lizard brain was telling me that I had to run away. I went back to my room and felt awful. How much of a failure was I that I couldn’t even find food by myself?

It sounds ridiculous writing about it now from the safety of my home. Why would anyone care that I’m eating alone? There are surely enough people in Mozilla that need some time to themselves here and there that it would hardly be surprising. And as much as I can tell myself that now, I couldn’t when I was out there physically walking amongst people I knew and feeling like I couldn’t do the things I wanted.

This is one of the ways social anxiety affects me, the inability to do seemingly simple and benign things when in public because I’m terrified of how others will view me.

More to come.

Me and my dumb brain

Today those polite folk from up north have been talking about mental health and how it affects them and those around them. Mental health is one of those issues that we too rarely talk about. I think it’s partly because you can’t see the problem and unless you have experienced it yourself it can be very difficult to understand. There has always been a stigma attached as if for some reason having something wrong with your mind is much worse than having any other kind of medical issue.

Whether you know it or not you’ve known people with mental health problems. Maybe chronic conditions that they will have to learn to live with for the rest of their lives, maybe just short term problems that time and therapy can help with. I’ve always been very impressed at how brave some of my friends have been to come out, as it were, to me or their community about the difficulties they face. Today it felt like it should be my turn.

For most of my adult life I’ve suffered from social anxiety. It’s never been too much of a problem but being in public spaces and interacting with people I don’t know well has been hard. In particular this affects me with phone calls and video conferences which I try to avoid wherever possible. Mostly I can push myself past this, particularly if there are a few drinks to be had to calm my nerves, but it still affects the things I will consider doing meaning I just stay at home a lot.

Some years ago though things got a little harder. Since then I’ve been suffering from IBS, a simple name for a condition that isn’t really understood and is mostly the diagnosis you get if you have chronic stomach problems and no-one can identify why. As you might expect from that there isn’t really a cure or anything that will help symptoms for everyone. For some people one thing works, for others something else will work. For some it only lasts a while, for others it lasts a lifetime. One thing that is true for many people with IBS is that it causes anxiety and depression and that has been true for me for about four years now.

Going to places I’m not familiar with, long journeys, anything where I’m expecting to be stuck somewhere and unable to go to a bathroom at short notice all trigger my anxiety. Add in the social anxiety which makes me feel pressured to not act out of the ordinary when I’m around other people when this is going on and you’ve got a great combination for me never wanting to leave the house. Add in other normally manageable life stresses and you’ve got the perfect recipe for panic attacks when I do. Oh and did I mention that stress and anxiety make IBS worse?

Thankfully I’m in the position that no one of my problems are debilitating, it is just the combination of them and other normal sources of stress and how they feed each other that makes me go through periods of extreme anxiety often with short periods of depression. Alleviating one of them helps to alleviate the others automatically. Shortly before Chloë was born my IBS was largely gone. The anxiety remained but I went into therapy and for a time things were mostly normal. Unfortunately things have taken a downturn lately.

One thing’s for sure, adding a baby to your family sure increases your stress levels and along with some medical issues with family members I’ve got caught back in the viscous cycle. And so now I’m taking anti-depressants to help stop the panic attacks and get my anxiety under control again. Medication is not something I take lightly, but it is necessary right now while I get back into therapy.I’m very proud of the family I have who have supported me since opening up about this. It’s made the difference between feeling like someone who has to hide themselves and someone who can actually be themselves, which is very important for someone with social anxiety. If someone opens up to you about something like this, please accept and support them. You may not be able to understand exactly what they’re going through but taking the pressure off by letting them know that you’ll help in any way you can means a lot.