How To Deal With Social Anxiety In The Summer
The Debrief: Social anxiety makes for a sad, sticky summer. Here's how to cope and make sure you get a little bit of fresh air.
This weekend, I watched Glastonbury on the telly. While I enjoyed the thoroughness of the coverage – plenty of FKA Twigs, lashings of Kanye, lots of Florence, about nine hours of Chemical Brothers – I was surprised that there was a very narrow range of festival goers shown in the close up shots. Not just because they were predominantly white, young, blonde and be-flower crowned, but because they were all having the best time ever. Everyone was singing, dancing and waving, and nobody seemed to be curled up into a ball next to their tent, sobbing noisily into a muddy towel and saying 'There's no place like home.'
I suspect that most of us suffer from some form of social anxiety at some point in our lives. In order to survive, we’re primally wired to be wary of any situation that makes us feel overwhelmed. If it involves public speaking, big groups of strangers, going somewhere unfamiliar or doing anything that’s going to make us feel slightly self conscious, most of us will be apprehensive at best. If you have an anxiety disorder, as I do, you’ll spend your life dreading anything that forces you to leave your postcode.
Flora*, 22, a student explains ‘Summer is the worst, because there seems to be something to do every bloody day of the week. I’m pretty sure there are more barbecues than there is meat. We have a course ball, a uni ball, some kind of all day running race, mini festivals, house parties…just listing them now makes my chest feel a bit tight. I know that I’m mainly worried because I can’t control what happens when I’m there, and other anxieties stem from that. What if someone talks to me and I can’t think of anything to say? What if I can’t get home? What if everyone hates me because I keep not going to parties?’
‘What if’ is a bastard, and it keeps millions including Flora and me from enjoying warm Pimm’s and potato salad. Like Flora, I find the volume of summer events makes life especially overwhelming. I’m afraid of letting people down, and it seems really rude to say no, or even ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know how I’ll feel at the time, I’ll try to turn up on the day’ (and there’s absolutely no way that it’s an acceptable way to RSVP to a wedding.)
According to the NHS social anxiety guide ‘socially anxious people tend avoid social contact whenever possible. If they cannot avoid it, they tend to try and escape it as quickly as possible. Although this is a very understandable way of coping with social anxiety, it is actually one of the main reasons that people find it hard to overcome.’
The anxiety does not spare me from crippling FOMO – I’ve spent weekends weeping over awesome Bestival costume pictures, despite deciding that I couldn’t cope with camping in case I had to get off the Isle of Wight in a hurry and the ferry got stuck. I still remember almost every party and holiday I have missed. I’m anxious that I’ve missed the magic of sticky late nights in London, because I was muttering about last tubes and bus schedules while everyone else climbed onto some secret rooftop and saw shooting stars and ate delicious sandwiches.
I’m determined not to ‘miss’ this summer – but I’m even more focused on managing the fun when I find it, so I stay relaxed, happy, and don’t end up overwhelmed (or getting a whitey and being pushed home in a borrowed wheelchair, coming to as my mates argue about whether or not to call NHS Direct. Not a highlight of my 2007.) I talked to some anxious friends and plotted a summer strategy.
Make anxious friends (or friends of friends)
This is a very good place to start. I will never forget – or regret - telling my very good friend Angela that I couldn’t come to her party because I’d been having panic attacks all morning. I was very close to pretending I’d had a dodgy takeaway. ‘Don’t worry! You’re the fifth of the day!’ she said cheerfully. ‘We’ll hang out when you’re feeling better!’ The mates who get it are worth their weight in ambergris and bullion. And when you’re with them, and you know that you don’t have to worry about embarrassing yourself because they love you, and they will look after you, you’re much less likely to feel so anxious that you need to cancel them.
Manage the booze
It took me a good ten years to learn this and I still slip up. Alcohol is a depressant, it removes inhibitions but it will ultimately exacerbate any bad feelings or fears you have. According to Drinkaware, alcohol is linked to anxiety and mental health problems because of the way it alters our brain chemistry. We all react differently, but I find that it’s not my friend if I’m frightened. But I did a lot of research in the field ‘to check’. I also find that clear spirits are usually manageable, but white wine makes me feel like the world is ending. Anxious friends concur.
Keep expectations low
Personally, I find that my anxiety gets out of control when I put a lot of pressure on myself, because I'm unable to meet the impossible goals I have set and I feel like a failure. For example, I got a lot better at the gym when I stopped saying ‘Go every day this month, you fat idiot!’ and started with ‘Let’s go for a little walk to the entrance, and you can go inside if you like. If it feels a bit much, we can go home.’ And so it is with parties. If you think ‘You must go and have the best night or everyone will think you’re really boring’, you’re asking too much of yourself. Try ‘I’ll have a drink, chat to the host, and see how I feel. If I don’t feel good and I’m not having fun, I will go home, and I don’t have to apologise to anyone.’
Challenge unhelpful thoughts
I think my head is run by a guy who was once in charge of the nation’s most brutal, sadistic and yet ineffectual bootcamp. Nothing is ever good enough for him. He’s never impressed. It’s always more, harder, better. I suspect Imaginary Bootcamp Man believes this is somehow inspiring for me, but he just makes me feel like shit. So when he says ‘Jack better not be at this party, because he thinks you’re a big idiot,’ or ‘Are you sure you want to wear that? Everyone will say your tits are wonky,’ or ‘Don’t stay out too late, otherwise you won’t do any work tomorrow and you’ll fail at life,’ I have to draw myself up to my full height and say ‘Screw you, Imaginary Bootcamp Man! People are nice, my friends like me and there’s a good chance that I’ll have a lovely time.’
Know your coping strategies
Sure, I didn’t go to Glastonbury because I was worried about getting lost in the crowds and losing my tent, but I just had a lovely time at Primavera Porto because I knew I could leave the site whenever I wanted and get a cab back to my hotel. If you’re managing social anxiety, it can help to have a checklist of strategies to help you prepare for the disaster you fear you’re going to meet. It can be as simple as having cash, a phone charger and a jacket that will keep the rain out. It’s important not to let this list become one more thing to be worried about, but it’s another thing to shout at Imaginary Bootcamp Man. You are a smart, thoughtful person who is good at preparing for things. And if you miss a bus or your debit card stops working, it’s not unfixable, and it’s not because you’re a failure. If printing out Mapquest directions to the venue makes you feel a bit more organised and in control, it's a good use of ink.
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