Social Anxiety Strikes Again

My palms are sweating.  My heart is racing.  My stomach is in knots.  Sounds like I’m getting ready to give a speech in front of a bunch of people, right?    

Actually, no, I’m just going to a Christmas party held by one of my coworkers.  Parties are supposed to be fun, right?  Wrong.  When you’re a natural introvert who suffers from a touch of social anxiety like I do, the idea of going to any social gathering with more than say eight people is terrifying.  Most people who know me would probably never guess that I feel this way because I like to think I’m good at hiding it.  Yes, I’m an introvert, but I’m not shy; like most things in life, introversion and extroversion lie very much on a spectrum & I believe I fall on the more liberal side of introversion (in other words, close to the middle).  I love talking to people, anyone really.  But I thrive on one-on-one or small group conversations.  That’s where I shine.  And I require a certain amount of alone time in order to stay sane.  Put me in a group of more than roughly eight people and suddenly I feel like the same old awkward teenager I used to be, the one who never knew about all the “cool” TV shows and music that everyone else knew about and who was generally out of the loop about just about everything.  I’m not that person anymore and I know it, but there is still something about being in a larger group of people that just sends off firecrackers in my brain.  And not the good kind of firecrackers.  The kind that say “Run away!  This isn’t safe!”  I might not really act like the turtle with its head in its shell, but deep down I’m often feeling that way.

This must sound totally ridiculous to those of you reading this who thrive on large groups, parties, clubs, and all of those supposedly fun things.  I on the other hand hate crowds and any sort of social situations that do not lend themselves well to intimate or deep conversation.  (Hint, intimate does not have to mean sexual, despite our society’s tendency to equate one with the other.)  Hell, the idea of going to NYC and walking around those crowded streets makes me feel like my throat is closing up and I can’t breathe.  I’ve even realized that I have this same type of anxiety around my own family, if a gathering consists of more than say eight people.  I know that must sound so silly.  But it’s true.  Perhaps the reason for this is that when you put 20-30 people in a house together you rarely have meaningful conversations with anyone.  You just say “Hi, how are ya?” and other such trivialities to everyone.  I for one long for so much more.  Yet I love having a big family.  Argh.

I am coming to realize that my mind is a mass of contradictions.  For example, I actually love hosting cook-outs and other casual “parties,” and yet the idea of attending one that isn’t composed of my closest friends inevitably causes me to have a mild anxiety attack.  I don’t have this problem when I’m around a lot of people at work or in class.  I think I handle those kinds of situations quite well.   I also am not afraid of giving speeches, teaching a class, or taking on leadership roles at work such as charge nurse.  I actually ENJOY all of those things!  But there is something about pure SOCIAL situations that still scares me if there are too many people involved.

With help from my therapist I’m starting to understand these things about myself and slowly learning that there’s nothing “wrong” with me because of them.  I know a lot of people are the exact opposite of me and fear intimate one-on-one conversations because they are too “exposing.”  But I love those kinds of conversations.  I’ve found that people almost universally like me when I am able to talk to them one-on-one or in a small group.  But in a larger group I have a tendency to just fade into the background and ask dumb questions like “Why do people put olives in martinis?”  

I don’t really know why I’m writing this other than to make myself feel better for being so “uncool” as to have a mild anxiety attack about something as silly as going to a party, something that most other people would be excited about.  The truth of the matter is I had a decent time at the party.  I almost always do.  But I still get anxious about these kinds of scenarios.  And deep down I’d always rather spend time with people alone or in very small groups.  If you’re reading this and you can relate to what I’m saying, feel free to comment so we can all feel less alone.

As an aside, I had my first winery experience yesterday with a group of close friends and it was AMAZING.  I haven’t laughed that much in a long time, and it was fabulous.  The winery was perfect for me: casual, friendly, & not the least bit pretentious.  Underneath it all, I promise I really am a fun person.  😉

As a further aside, I should add that I have at worst a mild case of social anxiety. I know there are people out there who suffer far more, or perhaps I should just say differently, than I from social anxiety. I don’t mean to say my experience is representative of everyone with social anxiety issues. I just wanted to share my own story.

The Negative Emotion-Guilt Complex


Last week I had my monthly session with my therapist & I told her how that week I’d had my first real anxiety attack in at least a month or more.  It happened on Monday afternoon of last week when I was just feeling overwhelmed with my busy schedule, working overtime, lack of sleep, etc.  Thankfully with some encouragement from a dear friend of mine, diffusing & applying several essential oils, & some deep-breathing exercises I was able to quickly move past the anxiety attack & get on with my busy day.  It felt like such a big step for me to be able to tell my therapist that not only was that my first real anxiety attack in a long time but, perhaps more importantly, I didn’t allow the attack to ruin my entire day or week.  Instead of feeling defeated & discouraged & beating myself up over having a “bad day” I just rejoiced in the fact that I was able to recover so quickly & move on with my life.  You have to understand that ordinarily when I have high anxiety days or anxiety attacks for whatever reason (often there really is no reason) I not only have to cope with the anxiety itself but also with guilt over suffering from anxiety problems.  This guilt of course only serves to compound the problem.

I grew up with the idea that certain emotions in & of themselves are sinful.  I’m not sure exactly where I got this idea but it was just there.  Add that to the perfectionistic, high-anxiety personality I was somehow born with & you’ve got a pretty difficult situation.  For the first 18 or so years of my life, whether I wanted to or not, I believed that “negative” emotions such as anger, fear, hate, frustration, sadness, etc were sins.  Naturally this created a horrible cycle in which I felt guilty for experiencing these types of emotions & then the guilt just triggered more sadness, anger, whatever & the cycle continued.  What a mess!

The older I’ve gotten the more clear it’s become to me that no emotions are ever sins in & of themselves.  Feelings are feelings, nothing more, nothing less.  They are what make us ALIVE.  They are what make us human beings.  For example, it is only human nature to be angry at times, even to the point of wanting to hurt someone or something.  It is what we DO with our emotions that matters.  For example, when we strike out in anger at someone, whether verbally or physically, that is when we cross into sinful territory.  Allowing so-called negative emotions to overcome us to the point of being permanently bitter is also perhaps sinful.  But again it is not the feelings themselves that are the problem; it is the actions that spring out of them.  And I for one believe that, though fallible, we as humans have the power to control our emotions.  We might not be able to stop ourselves from feeling angry or frustrated over certain things.  Nor should that even be the goal.  But we DO have the power to stop those emotions from ruling us & causing us to act out in ways that hurt ourselves or other people.  To me that is the definition of sin (I hate that word but can’t think of anything better at the moment): something that hurts yourself or someone else.  I know that is kind of vague but the world is vague.  We only try to paint life in black & white because of how confusing it can be, to try to make sense of a world that is often unfair & cold.  But we do ourselves a disservice by trying to understand a very grey world in only two very extreme colors.  There is so much more to life than that.

I still struggle with anxiety.  But it’s not something that defines me anymore.  And I still struggle with not feeling guilty over having anxiety or experiencing other “negative” emotions.  But the greatest freedom I’ve found in life is when I let go of the guilt & just allow myself to feel whatever it is I’m feeling at that moment.  I have found that these so-called negative emotions leave a lot faster when I just admit what I’m feeling instead of trying to force myself to feel some other way out of guilt.  I don’t know if anyone else struggles with this or if it’s just me.  But I don’t think I’m that unique so I’m sure there are others out there fighting this battle too.  And I hope that if you’re one of those people & you’re reading this that you will be encouraged to move past the guilt & to learn to just enjoy being alive.  We all have our inner battles & we all have bad days because of them.  But as long as we don’t allow those days to define us we are winning. 

P.S. Whether you struggle with any particular mental illness or not, I strongly encourage everyone to consider seeing a counselor or therapist at least once in your life.  As a friend of mine once told me, we can all benefit from having someone to vent to who isn’t emotionally attached to us because no matter how “perfect” our lives may be, we all have issues we could benefit from discussing with an impartial mind.

I’m Not Afraid of Getting Old

Last week I traveled to Virginia to visit one of my best friends & attend a concert with her. After the concert as we were walking back to our cars we started talking about getting older & I told her something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I don’t fear getting older because to me it just seems like I’m “growing into my age.” To my great relief she completely agreed with me. (I’ve always said the way I know I’ve made a great friend is when they can relate to my weird ideas & thereby make me feel less crazy.)

age is just a number

Basically my whole life, certainly since I was 16 or thereabouts, people have always thought I’m older than I actually am. I remember during my first few weeks at college so many people were shocked when they discovered that I was only a freshman, & even as a nurse people always seem to assume I’m older & more experienced than I am. Quite a few people in my life, both my age & decades older than me, have told me that I have “an old soul.” I’ve always taken this as a compliment; some certainly meant it that way, others perhaps not.

I’m not really sure what point I’m trying to make with this post, but I see that our society is so focused on youth & constantly trying to fight or hide the signs of aging & I can’t help but feel that this has some deeper meaning. Let me be the first to admit that I know I’m going to freak out the first time I find a grey hair or notice a wrinkle on my face that isn’t from sleeping on the pillow wrong. It’s only natural to not want to be reminded of your own mortality & to want to look beautiful forever. And in our society, like most societies I suppose, young & beautiful are pretty much synonymous. (By this I mean youth does not necessarily equate to beauty but someone who is deemed beautiful is almost always young or “looks great for their age.”) But this constant obsession with looking young makes me inclined to believe that our society does not value the wisdom of old age; nor are we thankful for the opportunity to grow old.

Perhaps it comes with being a nurse but I don’t see getting older as something that should strike fear in our hearts. Even as a kid I had a pretty liberal view of aging. In fact as a child my sister & I used to say people were “getting old” in their 70’s but not actually old till their 80’s. As a nurse I’m constantly reminded that age is just a number & so many people can be “young” into their 80’s or even 90’s if their health is good & their attitude is right. Others can be “old” in their 40’s if they have poor health & a negative attitude toward life. It’s really all about perspective & understanding that life really is a gift. Again as a nurse I’m continually reminded that not everyone gets to live a long, healthy life. So to me the idea of getting older isn’t so scary, for as long as I have reasonably good health I hope I will see each new day as the gift it truly is.

I’m not blind so I know that getting older does have its own unique difficulties. But right now getting older for me just means my late 20’s & 30’s & hopefully becoming a parent some time in there. I know my attitude might change 20 or 30 years from now when getting older means arthritis, cataracts, & other age-related troubles. But for right now I have to say, unlike a lot of people, I’m not dreading turning 30 in a few years because honestly I think in my mind I’m already a bit older than my age says I am. I guess it goes back to that old soul thing because so much of the time I find myself feeling older than people my own age in the sense that I have different values about life or am simply at a different stage of life than many people my age. (I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant because I certainly don’t think I’m better than others.)

Lately I’ve seen several blog posts & articles about the self-confidence that comes with reaching your 30’s, & I have to say I can’t wait for that. I look around at people in their 30’s & up & I do feel like they are much less concerned with what everyone else thinks about them because they have learned to value themselves based on their own standards, making the opinions of the world therefore less a concern. I for one can’t wait for the day that I’m that confident!

I guess my point in writing all this is that each stage of life is of value & we shouldn’t rush through or regret any of them. You don’t have to be religious to believe that life is a gift & therefore we should cherish each day, each year, each decade & make the most of every one of them. I know our society has always joked that it’s impolite to ask a woman her age but I for one am proud of my age & plan to always be that way. I love the little old ladies who aren’t afraid to say “I’m 81 & proud of it!” I’m not saying it’s wrong to dye your hair to cover up the grey or to dress in more stylish clothes than the average person your age. Not at all. Indeed I love it when I see older people keeping up with modern technology & trends. But I also think our society needs to learn to value old age as much as it values youth & to realize that getting older isn’t a tragedy at all. It’s a gift.

I hope I will always seek to embody the best qualities of each stage of life. I aspire to never lose the magic & wonder of childhood, the passion & intensity of adolescence,  & the excitement & energy of young adulthood. As I age, I hope I can maintain all of these characteristics while also embracing the wisdom, diversity, & knowledge that come with getting older.  

Inexplicable Anxiety

Chaucer on his first ever beach trip back in July at Jockey's Ridge St Park in Nagshead

Chaucer on his first ever beach trip back in July at Jockey’s Ridge St Park in Nagshead

I don’t really know why I’m posting this.  I’m not sure that it will be interesting to anyone else.  But writing is one of the best ways to temper my anxiety & I figure there are probably other people out there who can relate to my struggles.  So here goes . . .

Today started out with me getting up early with Jared & feeling really content with life. We went to the farmers’ market & got breakfast at the restaurant there which we had never been to before. It was a fun way to start the day & I was in a great mood for no particular reason. And then, for no particular reason, that mood crashed & burned like a rocket falling out of the sky. Some days my anxiety just comes around a corner & chokes me before I even realize it’s happening. It’s maddening to say the least. My therapist has been helping me to slowly identify some of the triggers for my anxiety which has been very therapeutic for me. After all, if you don’t know the cause of a problem, how can you hope to cure or treat it? But I still have days like today when I am just inexplicably anxious for no apparent reason at all.

I have often said that I am the best version of myself when I’m at work because as a nurse I get to focus all of my obsessive tendencies onto caring for other people, including my patients & their families as well as my coworkers. I love helping out my fellow nurses as much as I love caring for patients. I’ve always known that I feel a very urgent need to have a job that is important & meaningful, which is one reason why nursing is such a great career choice for me. So even if I have a bad shift, which is inevitable from time to time, I can always leave the hospital knowing I in some way made someone’s day a little better.

It’s when I’m at home on my days off that my anxiety is often the worst. As I’m typing this I realize how ridiculous that must sound to anyone who doesn’t know what it’s like to suffer from some form of anxiety. But it’s true nonetheless. I don’t know how to explain this without sounding like some miserable frump who doesn’t know how to have fun & enjoy her life. I promise I’m not like that at all. I love music, books, & spending time with my friends & family. I love the feeling of a crisp fall breeze, the smell of sweet potatoes baking in the oven with cinnamon, the thrill of hiking in the Blue Ridge & marveling at the majestic mountains, the heart-melting experience of cuddling with an adorable puppy, & so many other little things in life that truly are the very essence of our existence. Yet may I just say that there are days like today when I feel like the world benefits from my overly driven but caring personality while I sit here wondering what the heck I’m getting out of this deal? And may I just say that I already feel incredibly guilty for even thinking such a thing much less actually writing it? But it is what it is nonetheless. As I’ve said many times before, emotions aren’t sins in my book. Emotions are what make us alive. As long as we’re feeling, we know we’re living. It’s what we do with our emotions that matters.

So for now I’m going to play with my puppy (Chaucer) who follows me around the house constantly & insists on sitting in my lap just about every waking moment & thus clearly thinks I’m the world’s best puppy mommy. And I’m going to listen to music that inspires me & reminds me that though I may be struggling with my anxiety more today than yesterday or the day before, I’ve walked this road a thousand times before. And, as it has a thousand times before, it will end. I will always have my “bad” days like this, but I will always have my good days too. And even on the bad days I can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. And I know that my anxiety doesn’t own me. It doesn’t define me. It’s just a part of me. Just one small part. After all, if Chaucer thinks I’m awesome I must be.   🙂