In the Process of Overcoming Social Anxiety

I started in the Social Anxiety Institute's behavioral/cognitive therapy group in January of 2005. It has helped me deal and overcome many problems I have had in my life, all stemming from my social anxiety. 

My social anxiety has always been present with me. Even when I was as young as 2 years old, I was shy. Up until around the seventh grade, school was just mildly anxiety provoking. I was shy but managed to get by fairly well. 

Middle school was different though; there were many more students there and I was very intimidated by this new world. I wished that I was invisible and that no one could see me as I walked around campus. 

I always hoped that things would get better, that my life would somehow just automatically change, but it never did. As time went on, it actually got a lot worse. 

The high school I went to had about 1500 students and it was an extremely overwhelming experience for me. This is where my social anxiety peaked, and it stayed at that level for quite sometime. Although I was very shy at this time, I still managed to have a few close friends around me. 

I remember them inviting me out to go to parties with them, and despite my fear of these little get-togethers, I would always go. I figured eventually I would come around and start to enjoy talking to and meeting new people just like my friends did. It never happened for me, though; the whole situation was just too much for me to handle. 

I always felt uncomfortable in every situation. I felt like everyone was judging me and that no one liked me. Even when people came up to talk to me, I thought they did it out of pity or to make fun of me. 

What's worse is that my belief that these things were occurring, whether true or not, only made my anxiety more uncontrollable. 

I remember one day in my sophomore year I had to do an oral book report. I had been in agony for the 2 months leading up to it because of the absolute terror I felt whenever I had to stand up in front of the class and do these types of things. 

I was hoping that I would come across well that day, but unfortunately it was a disaster. I was shaking so badly you would have thought the classroom was outdoors somewhere in the arctic circle instead of indoors in Phoenix, Arizona. I could not control my voice at all and it began shaking just as bad as my body was. It was a huge anxiety attack, and everyone in my classroom was there to see me go through it. 

After this, I was embarrassed and humiliated and felt like a weak, pathetic loser. Eventually, I got through high school and when everyone my age started going to college, I started to work odd jobs instead. I'm not sure if I wanted to further my education at that time, all I know is that I was terrified of going back to school. So I worked odd, dead end jobs for about two years before finally getting up the nerve to enroll in a nearby community college. 

I took four classes to start out, but I didn't get too far. On the first day of one of my classes, the instructor wanted everyone to get up and introduce themselves. When he said this, my anxiety immediately went through the roof! I felt a deep gut wrenching fear in the pit of my stomach and by the time the introductions got around to me, I had another full fledged anxiety attack, identical to the one I experienced my sophomore year of high school. 

I was completely devastated; I was hoping that in the years that had past that my "problem" had gone away, but it wasn't true. It was just as powerful as it was when I ran away from it in high school. 

I stuck college out for another two weeks but eventually dropped out; school was just too overwhelming for me. My future was starting to look hopeless, and even though I didn't have much of a problem finding work, they were all basically minimum wage jobs with little chance for advancement, mainly due to my shy, stand-offish behavior. 

My social anxiety made it hard for me to communicate with the people I worked with. Usually, I would only stay at a job for a few months because I thought no one liked me at work, I always thought people were talking about how weird and strange I was behind my back. Looking back on that now, I probably turned that into a self fulfilling prophecy. 

I continued on this way for the next 5 years and at one point I even moved out to Hollywood, CA to train as an assistant editor. I was disappointed though, when I found out usually the only way to find work in this field was to network or go to industry parties and try to sell yourself, i.e. socializing. I quickly gave that up as a career choice and wound up bussing tables at a restaurant. I was 24 at this time and started to get really depressed. I just didn't know what was wrong with me. 

I knew I had social anxiety but was completely unaware of how central it was to the difficulties I was having in life. During this time I guess you could say I was also somewhat of a heavy drinker and had been for a few years prior too. Although, initially, I felt like it helped me, my drinking started to become a heavy burden, compounding my problems even further. I stayed out in Hollywood for about 6 months before moving back home. I had no money, I was very unhealthy, and was losing ground. My parents let me stay with them on the condition that I either worked or went to school. Take a wild guess at what I did. 

I got another meaningless job and this time for some reason, I had even more difficulty with my co-workers. I actually knew many of them did not like me, and I figured it was because I was stupid, a freak, ugly, weird looking, wimpy, pathetic, or just completely worthless and unlikable.

Looking back on it now, I know it was because of my attitude. I was very stand offish and probably came off as stuck-up and arrogant. There is no way any one could have convinced me otherwise at the time though. 

I guess I had found a way to cover up my shyness and fear by allowing no one to get to know me or get close to me and it worked pretty well. I was very burnt out at this time and really exhausted from my social anxiety and unhealthy lifestyle. Finally, when I was 26 I started to clean up my act. I quit drinking, I quit smoking and my life did start to improve. There was still something that was causing me problems though, and it was my social anxiety. 

It slowly started to dawn on me that it might be what's causing most of my problems and I especially knew at this time that it simply was not just going to go away. I needed to get help. I looked around on the internet for a few days until I came across The Social Anxiety Institute website. I felt like this program showed more promise than the others and I am thankful that I made the decision to take part in this therapy. 

In January, after the group began, I voluntarily took part in a behavioral exercise called "The Circle of Death" where we went around in a circle and introduced ourselves to each other and told "a little bit about ourselves". There were only five people in my group at the time but it was still a nerve racking experience. However, through weekly repetition of this exercise, I've made much progress in this area. My anxiety has gone down and I know what I say is OK. I've even gone through it in "real world"-type settings without freaking out and making a fool of myself.

I also concentrated on something called slow talk. Slow talk is when you deliberately slow down your speech just a little, in order to gain more control over your nerves. I found that the more I took my time and slowed down whenever I talked, the more relaxed and in control I felt. Although it seems simple, just slowing yourself down helps a lot.

I would use slow talk in the behavioral exercises that caused the most anxiety for me. "The Circle of Death" and giving presentations were very high on my list. but using slow talk helped me improve quite a bit.

Other behavioral activities that have helped include answering impromptu questions, being made the center of attention, and standing in front of the room and speaking (about anything).

Another thing I would do was read over the cognitive handouts Dr. Richards gave to us out loud in slow talk everyday for about a half hour. The handouts were effective in getting me to start thinking differently about the way I perceived the world. Doing it in slow talk simply got me into the habit of slowing down and gaining control over the delivery of my speech. 

It has been a slow process, but at the same time I have made great strides in overcoming my social anxiety. This is especially true as far as school is concerned. Right now I'm taking four classes at a nearby community college. I truly never thought I would be able to feel relaxed enough to get back in school -- but I'm back and I feel relatively good about it. 

Socializing has become easier for me now and although I know I probably will never be the life of the party, I've felt much more comfortable at the ones I've gone to since I started with the therapy. 

I feel like I can only get better now, not worse, and I definitely plan on keeping all the skills I've learned in here for the rest of my life so that I can have a better one.