Conversations from the Leading Edge Blog

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A Candid Conversation About Living with Social Anxiety

Run away. Run away from this horrible thing that's happening, now. If you don't get out immediately, you'll die.

This is what having an anxiety attack feels like for me. I've have thousands of them over my lifetime.

For most of my life, I just thought I was shy, or at worst socially awkward. I've never been known as the life of the party, having a gift for the gab, or having more friends than I could count on one hand, at any given time.

Despite having acute anxiety, I've lived a normal life just like you. I've always had friends, many of which were very close relationships and people I've loved, very much.

In college I joined a society on a dare. Trying to prove all sorority girls were cut from the same cloth (loud and obnoxious), I failed. I found one sorority that was littered with funny, smart, down-to-earth women. Some of my best friendships were formed from taking that dare and going waaaaaay outside my comfort zone. That's not to say that it wasn't also one of the hardest things to do for me. During the meet-and-greet parties, as we made our rounds from house to house and before we pledged one in particular, I thought everyone would immediately recognize my high levels of anxiety and call me out as a freak. 

Strange, but no one ever did.

My first teaching job was at a little known private school on the far north side of Chicago. There, I met a woman who would become one of my closest friends for the next fifteen years. In hindsight, I suspect she had similar levels of anxiety; it was something we never spoke about.

The most excruciating part of my job as a teacher, in my early twenties, was talking with parents. My anxiety manifests itself as an irrational and illogical fear of being judged by others in social situations, accidentally offending someone, being the center of attention, and being misunderstood. My heart races, my chest tightens, or I might get a rash on my neck and face. Having to present at parent's night, and do parent-teacher conferences, sent my anxiety through the roof. Most of the time, I wasn't sure I was going to make it through. I literally felt as if I was going to die. The urge to run away was nearly uncontrollably.

Today, my anxiety can be provoked by social media, doing interviews as a self-help author, as well as just having a conversation with people.

Depending on the day, 'people' could be anyone from someone I know and love, to a total stranger. My anxiety doesn't follow a predictable pattern. It can strike at any time.

I've been able to hid my severe anxiety most of my life pretty well. When I was a teenager, partying made the emotional pain of being me calm down a bit. I could numb myself in numerous inadvisable ways.

In college, pretending I wasn't anxious also helped me navigate some difficult situations. Sometimes I'd become overly boisterous, or defensive, in an attempt to deflect from my lack of self-confidence. Another strategy I used was to exit the situation before my anxiety peaked, so my cover wouldn't be blown.

As an adult, I have to be conscious of whether or not I'm having an off day before I commit to things that will activate my anxiety. Currently, doing interviews for summits, podcasts, giving live presentations, or attending networking meetings and being the center of attention, or even wearing clothes that aren't comfortable might activate my sense of panic. I can't stand to be uncomfortable. Wearing clothes that are too tight or itchy can jettison me into an attack, if I'm in public or the center of attention. The sense of physical discomfort becomes too much. It feels as if everyone can see how uneasy I am, which only makes my reality worse.

Ultimately, whether I feel overly anxious or not completely depends on the day. If I'm super tired, it's likely that talking to people will make me really uncomfortable. 

It's so embarrassing to be easily embarrassed.

Menopause, and being depleted of so many of the feel good hormones the body naturally produces in our early years, has made things even worse. There are days were my whole body shakes from lack of soothing hormones. I'm sure that everyone knows and is going to call me out as being a freak and a fraud. I'm an 'expert' (whatever the heck that is) in self-help and personal development, for God's sake. Shouldn't I have all the answers?

Having painted a disastrous picture so far of living with social anxiety, I also want to say that living a wonderful life with high levels of anxiety is possible. I sit behind my computer today (hiding from you ... just kidding) and type these words as proof of that fact. It's not easy and there are days when being in my body is terrible uncomfortable. But, overall it's been a hell of a great ride.

I've done some pretty courageous things in my life. After high school, I lived in France as an exchange student for a full year with a French family. Pretty much everyone else on my program caved and went home. They couldn't take the whole living abroad thing with strangers and bailed. I, the kid with chronic social anxiety, made it to the finish line and won that round. That was a pretty big deal because there were days when I didn't think I would.

On a college travel abroad program, I meet my husband. He was studying in Aix-en-Provence for a year and I'd just finished three month of study in Paris. Socializing with people who see the real me and love me for who I am helps tremendously. I highly recommend you share your story with others so they can tell you that they love you, no matter what.

Today, I'm raising three beautiful girls, none of whom would say their mom let anxiety dictate her level of happiness in life and what she accomplished. To my, this might be one of my greatest successes so far.

When I turned forty, and was still struggling with SAD (social anxiety disorder), I gave personal development a try. Maybe if I could just think positive enough, or set the right goals, I could change this dirty little secret of mine.

Alas, that was not the cure for me. It takes more than just happy thoughts to work around something as devastating as chronic anxiety.

So, what has helped me the most? What has enabled me to dramatically reduce the effect anxiety has on my life?

(As I write this, I've only had one significant attack in the last year. Pretty good for someone who was seriously triggered when encountering new situations all her life.)

For one, admitting that I have social anxiety and letting that be okay provides such a huge, and real, sense of relief. The more I try to hid this aspect of me, the most it wants to be seen.

Second, eating the cleanest diet I can has also helped a great deal. I suffer from migraines, which didn't help the anxiety, so I gave up gluten, daily, egg, corn, alcohol and significantly reduced my sugar intake. The migraines improved immensely. I started getting headaches every day last year and the migraines increased to four times a month. Now, I only get a migraine about once a month. Most days are headache free!

Third, developing my own, personalized approach to personal development and anxiety reduction has been an incredible life saver. I no longer believe I need to be impressive, in order for me to be worthy. My life is what it is; my accomplishments are what they are. I am who I am and that's good enough.

I'm okay with the idea that I'll (probably (gotta keep my options open, ya' know)) never be famous, a world-renowned author like J. K Rowling, and never have a killer body. Giving up ideas that I should be something other than who, and what, I am right now have provided me with the most welcomed relief.

In other words, when I stopped 'shoulding' on myself, it helped my anxiety a lot.

If you look closely, most personal development instruction, classes, and workshops are not about developing a plan catered to the individual. They're just a plan the expert put together because it worked for (her/him) and that they swear will work for you, too.

Maybe, but not always.

To solve this problem for myself I wrote a book, which is really just a game plan for me to follow. I wrote the book for me, first, my daughters, second, and anyone else who's keen on the topic, third.

Strange, right? I mean, people are supposed to write books to help others, not just themselves. Isn't that selfish? 

No, it's not.

Anxiety requires us to be selfish, in a good way. I'm not talking about being arrogant, rude, or belligerent. I'm talking about being full of yourself in a loving way. When we give to ourselves first, we have something to give others, next.

The difference between my approach to self-help, and that of most self-help authors, is that I'm asking you to seek help from your total self ... not from me or my plan. I'm asking you to look within for your own unique game plan, inspiration, motivation, creative ideas, and excitement. It's there; I can promise you. Keep looking.

Living a fabulous life with social anxiety is totally possible. When it does strike, just remember that it's okay to admit what's happening and let yourself deal with it in the best way you can. No one else can tell you what to do, when to do it, or what's going to bring you the greatest sense of relief.

Go inside, and ask your inner guide, to inspire you to the next best step, for you.

All is well.