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Social Anxiety in the Rear-View Mirror: 3 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Younger

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“It’s all in your head!” I heard these words countless times growing up, typically after sharing some unshakeable feeling that was swirling around in my head. You see, my family never got in the weeds when it came to talking about topics like mental health. It was taboo. Instead, they would resort to shouting platitudes into the air to fend off any meaningful conversation about the subject. Looking back, I don’t think my family was being mean or insensitive. They just didn’t know how to handle me. In other words, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

On paper, my childhood looked pretty great. I was quite popular, pretty funny, and decent at sports. But what most people didn’t know was that under the surface existed a trough of self-hatred and discomfort, and it mystified me. I often felt weird and somewhat of an outcast, even though I wasn’t. I agonized over the thought of an upcoming event where I would be surrounded by strangers. I avoided raising my hand in class for fear of looking stupid. I felt envious of my carefree peers who seemed to effortlessly coast through their young lives.

With my formative years behind me, I moved on to junior high school. My insecurities also came along for the ride. Like most pre-teens, this was the hardest part of my journey. My body was changing, my interests evolving, and I was going to be thrown into a much bigger pond – one full of new faces. At this point, my insecurities started to take over my life. I became withdrawn, my grades suffered, and I was no longer involved in sports. Any confidence I once had was gone, and I only felt comfortable around a handful of family members who made me feel special. In my mind, this was the new normal. I felt like a shadow of myself.

Next stop, high school. It took me a while to get out of my funk, which lasted about two more years after junior high. But I was learning. I was involved in sports again, I regained a good group of friends, and I even had a girlfriend during my junior and senior years. Again, things looked pretty good from afar, but I was still suffering from bouts of extreme anxiety, and I kept it a secret from everyone. I resorted to self-medicating with alcohol before any social function. I became angry and violent with people who disagreed with me or wronged me. I started to fight and act out.

Entering college was exciting but also terrifying at the same time. I certainly wasn’t prepared to be on my own. Yet, against all odds, I made fast friends, participated in social events, and still made time to be involved in sports. What suffered the most was my attendance in class. At first, I tried to make it to class, but I started to have bouts with involuntary twitches and full-body shakes that would make me extremely uncomfortable. This new symptom was not only embarrassing – since I assumed that everyone in the class was watching – but also detrimental to learning. I was so wrapped up in my head that it was near-impossible to comprehend anything the professor was saying. My freshman year GPA fell to 1.9.

During my second year in college, two of my friends pitched me an idea: “let’s drive to Los Angeles, enroll in an easy school, earn residency after two years, and then transfer to a better state school for free!” I was sold at first. As the date of departure neared, my fears became more and more powerful. I wanted to back out, but I didn’t want to let my buddies down. Reluctantly, I hopped in the U Haul, and off we went.

This was the most critical point in my life because I actually got out of my comfort zone for the first time in twenty years. The funny part (at least now) is, I completely freaked out once we arrived and ended up back at my parents’ house in Connecticut within a month. This was rock-bottom but essential to my learning process since this was the first time I learned that my “problem” had a name: social anxiety. As the doctor explained that my situation was quite common and prescribed medication and therapy to help, a feeling of relief came over me. I was NOT alone. I was NOT different.

Almost twenty years have passed since that “aha moment,” and my life has been pretty good since then. Don’t get me wrong, I had to work hard to get where I am today, but I started late. Much like my family, I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know. And they were right; it was “all in my head.” Just a little more complicated than they imagined.

Here are three things about social anxiety and ways to cope that I wish I knew earlier in life:

  1. You’re not that special – I know this sounds harsh, but it’s true! Most people are too wrapped up in their own worlds to have time to monitor your every move. If you are having a hard time blocking out the world when you are in a public setting, try listening to music or white noise to center yourself. I typically do this on a plane or the subway to put myself in a calmer state when I start to feel anxious.
  2. Write it down – This is something that I started at a pretty young age and has been a tremendous help throughout my journey. Schedule time every day to write down your feelings. I find that the end of the day is best because it gives you time to reflect when the day’s happenings are behind you. I prefer to use a journal, but I will also jot down notes on my phone if I am not at home. It doesn’t matter where you put these words – all that matters is that you get them out of your head. By doing so, you are relieving your brain of excess storage. You will also be able to take inventory of your emotions and why they occurred. With less baggage dragging you down from the past, tomorrow will be easier to handle.
  3. Find the deep end, and dive into it – It may seem like an impossible feat, but you are way stronger than you think. I didn’t want to move across the country, but I forced myself to take the leap. The outcome? I felt terrible shame and embarrassment! But what happened after those feelings subsided is the reason I am better today. I was fed up with feeling the way I did, so I found help. Sometimes a shock to the system is the best remedy for someone suffering with social anxiety. I blanketed myself with safety before I finally dove into the deep end. It was the toughest and smartest decision I have ever made.

Luckily, talking about mental health is less-taboo today than it was when I was young. But that doesn’t mean it is easier to talk about or deal with. If you are experiencing signs of social anxiety, don’t keep it a secret. Tell someone you know you can trust. Seek professional help. Educate yourself. You’re worth it.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Lee Morgan is a freelance writer and marketer who currently works with small and medium-sized businesses in several industries. One of his passions is sharing advice on self-improvement and self-development, motivation, and mental health. Lee grew up in Watertown, CT, with his parents and three siblings. Some of his fondest memories from childhood were spent at his grandparents’ house in the nearby historic town of Woodbury. He now lives with his fiance and English Lab in downtown Los Angeles.

Photo by Antonio DiCaterina on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios only.

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