From my early teens, I have always struggled with anxiety in social situations. That knot in your stomach, the sweaty palms, sometimes some nervous shakes but always the reappearance of an absolutely blank, barren mind. I felt I wanted to join in but there is nothing you can possibly think of to say. Then finally you have something to say…
“Can I say it? No. Oh, go on. No, you are just no good at this. But I could. Oh no! The time has passed. Idiot!”
This is when that blankness often turned inwards and I would think how noticeable it must be to others that I wasn’t joining in. The panic, the sweatiness, the dread. The absolute horror that I may be noticed.
“Are they looking at me?”
“You must join in. You must! Look everybody thinks you are weird.”
Round and round it goes, until everyone has gone. My anxiety had won again. Another social interaction passes without me engaging at all.
This was my experience for the best part of 15 years, until I realised, through some advice from wise people, anxiety is not a fixed state. You can work on it. It can be controlled, diminished, or even eradicated.
What follows is a bit of a ramble on what I have learned about anxiety and what you can do about it for yourself.
The common idea of anxiety
Many people discuss anxiety within the context of uncertainty. When people’s lives change, they may, or believe they will (we will get to that later) struggle with the consequences. An expectation that change is a bad thing, whether consciously or subconsciously, ignites many different anxious emotions.
People often cite the media we consume. It is dominated by terrorism, murder, plane crashes; it’s a never-ending stream of doom. This constant bombardment, no matter how unlikely it is ever to happen in one’s life, can affect a person’s feelings. The anticipation that these could happen is enough to set off powerful anxious emotions.
These two ideas of what causes anxiety point to one particular idea; anxiety is caused by external forces.
This assessment seems unhelpful and short sighted. If it were indeed the case that anxiety was derived from external forces such as uncertainty in the world, or even perceived danger, then wherever there are these things we should find anxiety. This is in fact not the case at all. There are many, many people who face extremely difficult and unpredictable circumstances, consume doom mongering media in the bucket load, and do not suffer crippling anxiety.
So, if anxiety is not a consequence of outside events, what is it?
The first thing to look at is the perception that anxiety is something that happens to you; rather than something that is produced by you. The reality is, although it really feels like it is caused by outside circumstances, it is actually coming from within. You have the power to change it but first, it helps to understand what is really driving it.
Your overactive brain
I am certainly no expert but from what I have learned so far anxiety seems to be the by-product of two things. Firstly, an overactive and oversized amygdala, which is part of the mammalian brain. This is an area in your brain which is responsible for your fight or flight responses. This means if you were to be in danger, this part of your brain would kick in and keep you safe, by either running or fighting. It is part of the limbic system which developed in the first mammals and it usually functions on a completely unconscious level. It is also part of the process of storing emotional memories. This overactive fear mixes with its responsibility for emotional memories and then causes you to misappropriate fears of survival to some of the most seemingly mundane things in life, like birds, open spaces or talking. You experience this as feelings of anxiety.
The stories we tell ourselves
In addition to this physical aspect, there is also a psychological element. It is the stories you tell yourself that has a major influence on your anxiety. In order to understand this let’s think of a simple example. Let’s say you are due to give a presentation to your class or teammates. You have been asked to prepare a ten-minute talk, to stand up and deliver it in front of everyone. This sends your anxiety through the roof. However, one of your classmates also has the task, they stay calm and collected. Now, if external factors were to cause emotional responses we would assume both people to be anxious. However, they aren’t. So what is different? It is in the story they tell themselves about the task or more likely the story they believe about themselves. The anxious presenter may well believe that they are no good at public talking or people will laugh at them. Whereas the other presenter may well think I am not great at talking in public, yet. Even a simple change in a statement, such as adding the word yet, will reduce your anxiety. It puts the situation in a larger context of an ongoing learning process; it is not the be all and end all.
They are simple stories. However, they massively influence our decision making and emotional responses. Sometimes they are completely imperceptible to us. They are like a lens through which we observe and interpret the world. They are not the reality. With focus and attention, we can change them.
We live in a society that encourages you to derive your self-worth from external sources. So if something drastically changes in your life, it feels like someone has broken part of you. This reality encourages people to blame outside events for their own feelings. The reality is your self-worth can be derived from within. If this is the case, external forces have a limited effect on your life because you know that is now what defines you.
Is anxiety relative?
Having said all this, anxiety in others is not to be dismissed because they simply “don’t understand.” To each individual, the feeling itself is the same no matter what the perceived trigger is. It is not for the observer to judge the trigger but to understand the feeling, approach it with compassion and understanding.
Soothe the mammal and change the story
We can sit here all day and discuss what is causing your anxiety, but what can actually be done about it? Is there anything that you can do in order to reduce your anxiety, not just in any one moment but also over the long term? Well, there are things you can do in order to help manage and reduce your anxiety. It means looking back at two of the major causes, your overactive amygdala and the stories you tell yourself.
The first thing you need to look at is your amygdala and calming it down. There are many exercises that have been shown to be effective in reducing its effect. These include meditation, breathing exercises, and Yoga. Your brain is incredibly malleable and plastic, it can be moulded and shaped throughout your life. It is not in a fixed state. Much like any muscle, If you exercise it, it will grow and change. This is why a regular practice of one of these exercises will help reduce the power and effect of your amygdala. This will mean over time you will be able to take a breath before your anxiety kicks in. It will create a gap in your thoughts to take a more conscious action. Rather than instantly turning down that party invite because of the fear of the social interactions, you will think no, it will be OK. Over time this gap will become larger and larger until you can barely feel any anxiety. It takes time and it takes patience, but it works. Trust me, I have used it myself.
The second element that will help you is to learn what are those stories you tell yourself. Do you say “I am no good at socialising”? Or “I can’t speak in public”? These are narratives that you have created and thereby become part of your ‘self’. Much like your brain, your skills and behaviours are just as malleable. Start by changing the story. You could start small, “I am good at having a one on one conversation” or “I can present at a meeting with three people”.
You can also create a more accurate way of describing your situation by simply adding the word yet. As I mentioned earlier this can give you a wider context within which your experiences can sit. You know that although the task at hand may be a little unnerving, it is part of a longer process along which you will improve. Everything is not on the line for this one task or piece of work.
These narratives may not seem significant, however, they are what you unconsciously use to derive who you are as a person. You have the power to change them.
One final note is to learn to accept your feelings of anxiety. Resistance to your emotions only serves to intensify the feeling. Everyone gets anxious, it is OK for you to feel what you feel.
I hope this gives you a little insight into anxiety and how you could approach it with fresh eyes. Be patient.