In one of my counselling sessions years ago, I was asked if I’d always struggled with social anxiety and after some reflection, the answer actually surprised me.
No, I hadn’t.
I’ve always preferred to stay in the house rather than go out socialising, that’s just the way I am.
But what I’d forgotten was that at one point, I could walk out of my front door without having to plan it hours (sometimes days) in advance!
I developed social anxiety after an incident when I was 17.
I was walking alone down a street when a guy came up behind me and tried to get me into his car.
I’m not going to go into detail as it’s something I still haven’t properly worked through, but long story short I got away and phoned the police.
Unfortunately by the time they arrived, the guy was long gone and as far as I know, he was never caught.
Since then I’ve struggled with pretty severe social anxiety.
At its worst I couldn’t leave the house on my own and even when I had someone with me, I would be shaking, sweating and hyper-alert all the time.
These days my anxiety is a lot more manageable.
I’m still very alert to people walking near me and can’t walk around with my headphones in. I had them in when he came up behind me and I didn’t hear him until he was right next to me.
But I can now go out on my own and using public transport has become easier. I still feel more comfortable if I have someone with me, but with a bit of planning and the right coping mechanisms, I can manage it.
Google Street View
One of the things I still struggle with is going somewhere new.
If I don’t know the area I start to get really anxious and I’ve missed out on quite a few opportunities because my anxiety has been too bad.
Luckily Chris has been such a help with this, offering to drive me to any events I want to go to when he isn’t at work.
Even if he can’t take me on the day, we’ll usually have a recon run beforehand so I know the area, where I need to go and what to expect.
But before we got together, I did something pretty similar using Google Street View.
I’d use it to “walk” the route I’d need to take using it, so I could pick out a few landmarks/points of reference.
I find it helpful to focus on finding these and thinking about which one is next. It helps distract me from any intrusive thoughts and also stops me getting lost.
My sense of direction is shocking, I swear I could get lost in my own back garden!
Even though I can’t have my headphone in while I’m walking, I use them a lot when I’m travelling.
They’re a great way to distract myself, mostly from thoughts about being on the wrong train and ending up in goodness only knows where.
Not that I’ve ever had anything like that happen, but apparently my brain spends a lot of time thinking about things like that!
I have a specific playlist set up that I use when I’m travelling.
Music is something I use regularly to influence my mood, and over the years I’ve found a decent collection of songs that help distract and keep me calm.
It’s not perfect, so if music isn’t working I’ll usually try listening to a podcast instead.
This isn’t something I do very often, but occasionally if I’m on my own and I start to feel anxious I’ll phone someone.
Usually my mum.
Sometimes I need to just talk about whatever it is that’s making me anxious, and doing that out loud to someone I trust can be so helpful.
It’s not perfect and sometimes when I put the phone down, the anxiety comes back.
But depending on how I’m feeling that day it can help boost my confidence, especially when she reminds me of how much progress I’ve made.
Plan what you’re going to do
This kind of fits in with the first point, but planning out what I’m going to do while I’m out is really helpful for me.
At one point I had to plan out every single shop I was going to go to, which order I was going to go to them in and even what I was going to buy.
I couldn’t deviate from that plan (even if I saw something in another shop I liked) and if something went wrong or threw me off this plan, I’d end up having a panic attack.
At the time we didn’t know I was autistic, so looking back at this now it makes a lot more sense.
If I’m with Chris we can just wander for hours and it doesn’t bother me, but if I’m on my own I still need to have at least a vague plan.
Do you have social anxiety? Do you have any coping techniques that help you?