Hello. My name is Jason and, yes, I have learned to deal with social anxiety. Further, I believe I can say that today I do not fit the definition of social anxiety as defined in the DSM IV. (Although there are times when I feel like I do.) I believe that by taking the proper steps toward recovery, social anxiety will never have the hold over my life that it once did. Believe me when I say there was a time I did not think this was possible.
As with most stories, they start with a problem, and this one truly does. So I will break my story up into two sections.
I. The Problem
I honestly don't recall having any social anxiety or symptoms of social anxiety until I was about 16 years of age. I may have had symptoms before then, but my memory goes back to about age 16, the “good old” sophomore in high school days. There are a few experiences I can recall, and I will attempt to recreate those events, even though to do so causes some anxiety, as not all places are fun to go back to.
My official "social anxiety" day, when I go back to when it all started, even though I didn't know it at the time, was in high school at an assembly. I was a fairly popular kid, even as a sophomore, always joking with people and making fun of stuff. For the most part, I got along well with everyone.
Well, at this particular high school assembly, we had a guest speaker come to the school, Matt Blair, former football player for the Minnesota Vikings. My dad was always a Minnesota Vikings fan, and still is, so he had a couple Matt Blair player cards, and he told me, "If you get a chance to get an autograph from him, have him sign these."
So I was sitting about the 3rd row back with my best friend at the time just listening to his speech and waiting for the opportunity when I could get him to autograph these cards. Toward the end of his presentation, he asked some question (I don't remember what it was), and it prompted me, along with a few others to raise our hands. Almost immediately, I heard a few of the upper classmen start chanting my name, "Jason! Jason! Jason!"
Pretty soon, it felt like the whole assembly was in on it. “Oooooo, not good”, I thought. Matt Blair asked the students, "Who is Jason?" My best friend starts pointing at me. Then, Matt Blair asks me to stand up in front of the entire assembly.
There I am in front of the entire school. Nervous as hell; almost frozen. I think I said to him, "can you autograph these cards?" He smiled and said, "No problem, as long as you do the Icky Shuffle."
The "Icky Shuffle" was basically a simple move a certain pro football player would do “back then” where he would lunge twice to his right foot, twice to his left foot, then spike the ball whenever he scored a touchdown. I knew how to do this, but my body wasn't particularly listening to me that day. I think I was kind of moving, and kind of standing still - shaking and twitching like crazy.
I remember that event like it was yesterday.
I knew that what happened to me was weird, but I didn't know what was wrong with me. It freaked me out so much that I convinced my parents to take me to our family doctor. They reasoned that maybe I had a heart murmur, or mitro valve prolapse. So I remember getting all of these heart tests done and the conclusion was that I was as healthy as a horse.
I also remember that after all the tests, the doctor told my dad, "It's hard for a kid to come in and talk about this stuff." I had complained to the doctor that I was having "facial twitching" as well. So for the time being, everything kind of went back to normal. But my SA was still there.
When I was a junior, I went to the prom, and overall it was a good time, but I experienced this facial twitching when my prom date and I were getting pictures taken. Everyone else was just laughing, but when they were done taking our picture, I felt so relieved that I decided not to go to the senior prom. Looking back on all this, probably nobody thought that my "facial twitching" was a big deal except me. I am the only one who remembers this stuff. Today I think to myself, "What a waste of my time!"
Then there was senior French IV class and we had to do an oral report in French. I don't remember being nervous for it, but when I got up there and saw all of the eyes glaring at me, I remember talking as fast as I could and sitting my butt back down as fast as possible. That year we also had to do a French commercial. My buddy and I re-enacted the "Mars Blackman, Michael Jordan - It's Gotta Be the Shoes" skit. When it came our turn to show the video to the class, I was so nervous I had to leave the room. Later, everyone told me it was a great video, but I was so anxious I thought I was going to explode.
Somehow, I always forgot these experiences enough to go to the next level. On to college, I remember being terrified in graphic design class when we had our critique days. Our teacher could be treacherous in his critiques of our work. My most vivid experience was being at my desk with the whole class gathered around me, and the teacher at the head of the desk, and I had to explain my portfolio to everyone. That day, my voice was calm and clear, but inside I was pressuring myself so hard to not show my nervousness, so it grew and grew to the point where sweat was literally running off my face. The teacher even made a comment about it.
That always makes things worse. And, I do remember people looking at me, when I had the nerve to look at their faces. The expressions, even from my friends, was like, "Oh my God. I've never seen anything like that!" Once again, another experience in the archives that only I would be able to recall in this amount of detail.
For some reason, high school speech class didn't bother me too much. I was always nervous about giving my speech, but I was somewhat comfortable with it. However, as my SA escalated, college became more difficult. I was able to slide by in junior college by taking an interpersonal communications class instead of speech, but I could not dodge the bullet at the 4 year university. I still remember saying to my mom, "I want to drop out of school over this".
I remember feeling so badly I cried some nights. I also remember saying to my mom, "Mom, if I ever find some way out of this, I think someday something I would like to do would be to help other people who are going through some of these things." Of course, I still didn't know at the time that anyone else in the world could be going through this level of fear and anxiety. At this point, I still didn't know what social anxiety was.
Thanks to a college student counselor I went to see a few times, I was able to reasonably approach my speech class and pass with a B. Man, that speech room was so small, and in my mind it seems like about 40 people were just crammed into it. I remember feeling the best feelings in the world when my speech was over.
I moved to Arizona in 1999 and started a computer animation / graphic design company with some good friends I met in college. Anxiety was still running my life in many ways, so I decided "I was going to get over this today, damn it!" just like the “Fighting Paradox” handout talks about.
I decided to join a Toastmaster club and stuck that out for a whole year. Looking back, I am proud of myself that I did that, but I still remember some of the comments I would get after my speeches. "Great speaking ability. You have no need to be nervous." Of course, then all I could think about is how I looked nervous and didn't get anything good accomplished. I couldn’t get over that and each speech seemed just as hard, if not harder, than the last.
I finally started researching for "anxiety" on the internet. That is when I came across the Social Anxiety Institute. And, “lo and behold”, it happened to be right here in Phoenix. What a great blessing! I wish everyone with SA was so fortunate. I read everything on the web sites that night and called shortly thereafter to get involved in a local group. That was the greatest thing that has ever happened for me and my social anxiety. I was finally hopeful that there was a light. There was a solution to this disease, and I was going to do the very best I could to learn more about it.
II. The Solution
In 2000, I enrolled in my first local social anxiety therapy group. I went overboard with the therapy, doing my CCBT 1-2 hrs a day. I knew Dr. Richards said that that was usually not good, but I thought, "What does he know? He could never have had it as bad as me!" So I did a 1-2 hr regimen every day while I was going through the program. I believe it helped me to such an amazing degree – although I don’t have time to do 2 hrs a day anymore.
Some of the techniques that continue to help me today are handouts such as “Mingling”, for example. The strategies on this handout are very straightforward and rational. Whenever I am feeling anxious in a small talk situation, like at a party, I refer to this handout in my mind. There is no rational reason for me to feel anxious in situations like these. I have just as much right as anyone else to do and say what I think in these situations.
Another great thing I have learned to remember over time is that “I am a success defined in my own terms”. No one can tell me I have been successful. I have to know it and believe it myself. This handout continues to help me to see and believe that.
Another handout that I refer to on a regular basis is “The Social Anxiety Automatic Cycle”. This handout talks about how physiological responses we sometimes have with social anxiety, such as blushing, sweating, twitching, tripping over words, etc. are nowhere near as apparent to other people as they are to ourselves. This can be hard to believe, but it is true. It is comforting to refer to this handout regularly and remind myself that even if my emotions are trying to tell me I have done a bad job, this is usually not the truth, and I am not giving myself enough credit for recognizing the situation for what it really is. So what if I was a little nervous? So what if it felt like I trembled a little bit or stumbled over a few of my words?
Other people didn’t really notice at all, and if they did, it wasn’t even a big deal to them. This handout has helped me to realize that I can just affirm to myself I have done the best job that I could in the situation, and now it is OK for me to move forward to the next thing in my life.
Another breakthrough for me was “Turning the Tables on the ANTs”, or Turning the Table on Irrational Thinking. This is a multiple session handout series ("theme") that describes what to do after we learn how to stop our irrational negative thinking.
When I approach a situation where I know I might feel anxious, I may say to myself something like, “This event is not as horrible as I make it out to be in my mind. I am blowing the importance of this event way out of proportion. It is true, this event does cause me some anxiety, but I am going to slow down and use my anxiety coping techniques. This event may cause some anxiety, but it will turn out a little better than I think it will. When this is over, I will be glad I did it. I know I have done events like this before, so I can do this event again now. I am not going to die.”
Turning the Tables on the ANTs has really helped me to see situations rationally. These handouts, when gone over and over again, combined with some of the other handouts and therapy strategies, have motivated me to try things I would have never considered trying before.
In tying it all together, there is one technique that is always a win situation for me, and it is a strategy that I learned the very first week in therapy. It is called slow talk. With anxiety, so many times we want to rush through things just to get them over with. In many cases, this “rushing through things” actually makes us feel worse and reaffirms the lying feelings and thoughts we have about ourselves and our performance.
With slow talk, which is simply a technique where we slow down our talking, we get into a more peaceful, relaxed state with very minimal effort. By slowing down our speech, it automatically slows down our thoughts, making information and awareness more readily available. I continue to use slow talk on a daily basis in many activities in my life, including talking with people and giving presentations and speeches.
These are just a few of the many techniques that I use to help me gain control over anxiety and shrink it back into the place where it belongs.
Through my business I was called upon from time to time to do presentations, once in front of an audience of 50-60 people discussing animation techniques in an IMAX theater at the AZ Science Center. I did it with little to no nervousness. I had NEVER felt that way in Toastmasters no matter how "smoothly" I did in my speeches there, I never felt that peacefulness of being up there in front of a large group.
Another time, I did a panel discussion in front of a group of at least 50 high school students who were trying to learn about different careers. I sat on the panel with a psychologist, some firefighters, and a school counselor. Then after our discussion, we got to break down into smaller groups and talk in more detail with others who were interested in my career. It was actually FUN!
We did presentations in our own office to large groups of students who wanted to learn more about animation. I've done presentations to the city of Scottsdale for computer animation work, and I was able to work comfortably on a business level with many people through the past few years. I know it would never have been that easy, and I may have never even attempted these things if it wasn't for the CCBT and Behavioral activities I experienced at the Social Anxiety Institute.
I will not lie. There are days when the anxiety rears its head back at me, but now I know how to defeat it. Not in direct combat, but slowly, peacefully, confidently. No matter how much anxiety tries to "turn up the volume", I know there is a cure, and I can implement that cure whenever I choose to. I can and always will have the capacity to “get better”.
Yes indeed. To all of the doubters out there, which I definitely was, I can confidently say today that this stuff is NOT the end of the world. Anyone with this stuff can not only get better, but realize that there is so much of life to enjoy when social anxiety is kept in check where it belongs.
I also could not believe that this stuff could be overcome so quickly. The hardest part is being consistent with the half hour of therapy each day. Some days it seems like such a hassle to do, but with a little determination to get through the 30 minutes each day, and applying the rationality of the therapy through the day, it really is an amazing thing. After going through the therapy, it does definitely make sense as to how it all works.
I hope my story is able to help other people.