Saturday, July 25, 2015

Life with an anxiety disorder - Part VIII: Social anxiety, part two

Having been in the clinic for eight weeks being treated mainly for social anxiety I have learned quite a bit about it to add to the previous post on the subject. Most of it are minor adjustments to what I already knew about it, one major revelation occured as well, though. Overall my first post on the subject was pretty accurate, but yeah, it can use some minor tweaks. And a single large one.

I was pretty spot-on on how common it is, I learned it afflicts as many as one in ten people. To various degrees of course, but that's still quite a lot of people. And my idea of this intense fear of doing something ridiculous, inappropriate, laughable, awkward, etc. is a common symptom to all people suffering from social anxiety, which I didn't know before. So I indeed described it correctly, yet did not realise how these are the same issues millions of people with social anxiety suffer from. That was quite interesting to hear, especially in the social anxiety group when people talked about their problems and they talked about things I have experienced or could experience the exact same way. That's the first minor adjustment, I figured my symptoms were pretty unique to myself, or to a small number of people, but they're symptoms a huge number of people suffer from in that exact same way.

The second minor adjustment I have to make is to my connection between social anxiety and panic attacks. It is not entirely uncommon for panic attacks to be caused by social anxiety, but for most people, the anxiety symptoms of social anxiety are not as extreme as those of a panic attack. Not that they feel great in any way, but the intense panic usually isn't there, just a very broad and unsettling anxiety that is hard to describe, like a weight on your chest. But because I do suffer from panic attacks, and there have been occurances of panic attacks in social situations, then why do I now say I was inaccurate in connecting them? Well, in my case it was always a coincidence when social anxiety and a panic attack occured at the same time, because I have discovered that they have two entirely different triggers and two entirely difference sets of symptoms, and one isn't connected to the other. They can occur simultanously because you can have trigggers for both in one place, and you get confused about what causes what, but from what I have learned now, I do not get panic attacks from social situations. That's a different issue I still need to work on.

I learned a bit about escape and avoidance behaviours, the German term we used for it translates to safety or security behaviours ("Sicherheitsverhalten"), which is something I hadn't known about before but did feel able to relate to when it was discussed. Stuff like playing with your cellphone in social situations, playing with your keys, crossing your arms, playing with your beard if you've got a cool one like mine, having drinks of water and always having the water bottle handy. Anything those suffering from social anxiety think will distract themselves and others from their insecurity. It helps a little in the short term, but we learned that it really only makes you more insecure in the long run because you become dependent on your little rituals and end up completely lost without them, or screw up even more if you put more thought into playing with your cellphone than into the conversation or presentation or whatever you are doing that scares you. 

The key to any social interaction of course is to pay attention to the other person(s) involved rather than to yourself, and that is the key people with social anxiety have lost, because they feel they - we - are so socially awkward that we need to constantly watch out for what terrible things we are doing. The major revelation for myself at the clinic was that it actually turned out I'm not perceived as socially awkward by others in any way. It's all, entirely, in my head. I've had many social exercises where I did small talk, held presentations, moderated groups, did all sorts of stuff with people, and I was always told I am perfectly charming and seem very secure and self-confident, by people who have no stake in lying to me. That was really what hit me the most, that the perception of others I am so worried about is so different from what I worry so much that it might be. 

All this stuff I will have to take with me on my continuing path to recovery. The bit in the first social anxiety post about practice being the key to beating this thing is still valid. Lots and lots of practice. But the additional things I have learned since the first post on the subject helps me reach my goal a lot better and more confidently.