Social Anxiety: How It Happens and How to Find Relief (Part 1 of 2)
I’ve always thought of myself as an introvert. As an only child, I spent much of my time reading, singing to myself, and playing alone. I guess this is where my social story begins. Even though I felt more comfortable in small groups, I never realized the severity of my social anxiety until high school.
Though high school is socially difficult for most people, I felt especially sensitive because I had to change schools in the middle of my junior year. I remember almost fainting after having to introduce myself to classmates in my Psychology class. I felt acute, physical symptoms: shortness of breath, lightheadedness, shaking legs, and sweaty hands. I managed to avoid the spotlight throughout high school. In doing this, I also avoided things that I really loved: singing (in public), assuming leadership positions, and expressing my opinions in class. I wasn’t mature enough to realize that my fears were drastically limiting my life experience.
In college, I trained with a vocal coach as a course elective. I was making great progress, when my coach informed me that one of the requirements of the course was to perform a solo at an arts festival. I immediately began to panic. The thought of that performance was so terrifying that I found it difficult to sing at all, even in front of my coach. My vocal chords would start to tighten and I couldn’t get my breath. The notes that I once sang loud and clear sounded like cracked whispers. My coach was surprised at this change and I told him about my anxiety. He wasn’t exactly understanding or compassionate. He basically told me to get over my fears. I eventually dropped the course without even speaking to my coach about it. I felt very ashamed of my actions, but I couldn’t think of any alternative.
When I entered graduate school, I was given an assignment as a teaching assistant. Though I was passionate about the subject of the class, I was terrified of leading the discussion section of the course, and this was to be my primary job. I immediately rejected the assignment. A few days later I got a call from the professor of the course, with whom I had taken several classes as an undergraduate. She expressed how much she wanted me to take the position and how confident she was in my knowledge of the material. After many protests, I gave in and accepted the job. As soon as I got off of the phone, I threw up.
I was a complete wreck for the entire time leading up to my first day of teaching. I imagined absolutely horrible classroom situations in which I would throw up, cry, faint, or all three. I had a series of degrading thoughts such as “You’re not qualified for this position,” and “You will fail in front of everyone.” I played a movie in my head of the magnificent failure I was sure to reveal to my students. Though I knew the material, I was positive that my nerves would cause me to freeze up and be unable to answer questions appropriately. I had anxiety about my anxiety. I was caught in a cycle that I saw no escape from.
On the day that I was to lead the discussion, I was completely miserable. I hadn’t slept the night before, and I was violently nauseous. I wanted desperately to call in sick, but I had a roomful of students depending on me. I was totally prepared for the discussion section, but I felt terrified of failure. In what I view as my all-time low, I decided that the only way I could calm my nerves was to drink an alcoholic beverage. It was seven’ o’clock in the morning! I downed a screwdriver and headed to class. Even though I knew that I was risking my job, my education, and the respect of my professor, I felt somehow empowered by my actions. I was doing something that I believed would make me feel better.
I was extremely early for my class, and I spent most of my time in the bathroom being sick. By the time my class started, I didn’t feel the effects of the alcohol anymore. I got to my classroom early and the students started filing in. I tried to address them individually to avoid the sudden shock of a room full of people.
Social Anxiety Guide:
More Personal Social Anxiety Stories: