The Anti-Anxiety Toolbox: First Trail Running Race Accomplished

Yesterday, I participated in my first trail running race in five years, and I loved it! The weather was perfect (overcast with some sunshine breaking through occasionally); the organisers friendly; the route scenic with a good mix of tough hills, trails, roads, grass, mud, over the moors, passing through villages, past grazing sheep and lambs. And there was cake at the end! 

Although I was a bit anxious on Friday night, and right before registering, I can happily report that I was also excited about having something to prepare for, after a whole year of pretty much not preparing for anything. Well at registration, I was reassured there was no way I’d get lost as there’d be clear arrows and marshals showing the way. The atmosphere was very welcoming and laid back (perhaps a little too laid back as there were quite a lot of people loitering around the finishing line, spoiling my sprint finish plan…), and everyone started at different times, so I never had to find myself in a big crowd of people. 

A lot of my warm up time consisted of me not being able to decide whether to run with my hydration vest or just a running belt, and I suppose that was the only time where my social anxiety really made its presence known. On the one hand, why not just wear what’s more comfortable or practical as I knew I needed to bring water and my phone for keeping time (point vest)? On the other hand, would it not look silly and overly pretentious to wear a vest for a mere 5 mile run (point belt)? Back and forth, vest on, vest off, belt on, belt off, vest on, and so on and so forth, until I noticed someone else running 5 miles wearing a vest and the choice was made. Vest it was. Screw you, SAD.

And despite my mild fear of getting lost, looking silly, coming last, spending all my energy in the beginning and having to crawl across the finishing line, I actually did all right. As I didn’t know the route, it was hard to plan the run well, but all in all, I managed the steep hills and tricky slopes, kept my focus on form and breathing, and, on crossing the finishing line, I even had quite a bit of energy left! No pains at all today, which makes me think I should have pushed myself harder… 

Being highly competitive, I’m forcing myself to pat myself on the back and say I did a good race, and, again, nothing bad happened! Nobody laughed at me, nobody said I didn’t belong there, nobody shouted at me to get out of the way, and I also wasn’t entirely ignored. I was greeted with smiles and welcomes, encouragement, and congratulations at the end. I got a medal, chocolate, cake, and a beer (this is Yorkshire, after all). 

My plan was to finish in under 54 minutes, and hopefully in the top ten. I finished in 53.47 seconds, and was number six of the ladies, only four minutes from the top three! So, actually, I did better than I had hoped for, and that’s from not knowing anything at all about the route or what to expect.

But regardless of the results, I guess I’m proud of myself for having signed up to the race, trained for it, and completed it, despite some pre-race nerves. And that’s what it felt like: nerves. Not anxiety. Just absolutely normal, everyday nerves, the kind that makes you perform better (in my experience), and not the anxiety that only hinders your effort. What a relief! I am now looking forward to the next race: 10k off road in June. Perhaps another top ten placement? 

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The Anti-Anxiety Toolbox – 2021 Running Goals

For a few months now, I’ve felt myself stuck with anxiety and depression bleeding into my creative pursuits. Writing my screenplay, a novel, short stories, and writing and recording new songs, even just practising guitar is hard work. I worry that what I do is rubbish, that, consequently, I’m rubbish, and that the whole thing is a waste of time (A later blogpost will discuss being trapped in thoughts circling creativity, productivity, money, and self-worth). 

In addition, I’ve felt stuck in thoughts on how I will be able to get out of an insecure financial situation because I’m so anxious about finding work, doing interviews, starting a new job, etc. In sum, it’s been a rocky start to the year. 

So, I’ve decided to shake things up a bit and start a new project which has absolutely nothing at all to do with creativity, work, or money: I’ve rekindled my love of trail running! I’ve found that what works best for me to keep myself motivated is setting up specific goals and making a plan to succeed. Therefore, my running goals for 2021 are:

  • 5 mile run in April
  • 10k run in June
  • Half marathon in September 

Which in turn are part of my three long term running goals:

  • Half marathon in 2021 (13.1 miles)
  • Marathon in 2022 (26.2 miles)
  • Ultra marathon in 2023 (mileage undecided)

(And no, I clearly have no idea what I’ve have gotten myself into.)

This blogpost was inspired by a wonderful episode of the Wild Ginger Running podcast featuring an interview with mental health- and running champion Sally Orange, as well as my own work with social anxiety. One thing I struggle a lot with is running in public, and this for many reasons, but mainly the whole being seen, judged, and evaluated, feeling self-conscious about how I look, in particular how red my face is as I have rosacea which means my face goes deep red and hot for a myriad of reasons, including, but not limited to, drinking alcohol, being cold, feeling stressed, embarrassed, being warm, or exercising. 

So signing up to races where I will be seen by other runners and by an audience is a challenge, but one I believe is manageable. For me, I think signing up to the London Marathon and run whilst watched by thousands of people would be overwhelming. So starting with smaller races seemed a good idea (in my first race, I’ll be competing against 38 other 5 mile runners). 

As you all know, exposure is an important part of working with social anxiety, but it’s important to go slowly. I know from experience that when you push yourself too hard and expose yourself to anxiety-inducing situations too fast, the effect can often be counterproductive. For me, it has meant my journey to self-acceptance and wellbeing was more or less reversed, and it’s taken years to get back to the point of actually wanting to work with my SAD again. 

Taking My Time…

As I’m naturally a highly competitive person and tend to compare myself to others — even people on an entirely different level of skill and experience — I’m also using my running as part of a tool to put more focus on myself, my needs, desires, and capabilities, and less focus on others, or me in comparison to others. It’s so easy to look at how fast or far others run, and then put yourself down because you’re slower or can’t run as far.

For me, it’s been very beneficial to read blogs and listen to podcasts from other trail runners. It becomes clear that lots of people use trail running as a way to manage their mental health, and connect with nature in a way that’s difficult to do when you’re running on tarmac through polluted cities. (I grew up in the country, surrounded by forests and lakes, so I’m perhaps biased in the whole trail vs. road question…!)

So my goal is to finish these races and enjoy the experience, focusing on resilience and endurance rather than chasing places and beating a certain time. I want to focus on appreciating my body and how strong and able it is, whilst also practising mental resilience. This includes dropping the competitive thinking that I have always used to berate myself. It has been truly liberating. It is also a great opportunity to meet new people, practice my small talk skills, and get a feel for being part of a community again.

And it has come with the added bonus of giving me the mental energy and resolve to start this blog, keeping me creative each week. I truly believe creativity fosters creativity, so in working with this blog, I’ve also started setting up some creativity goals for this year and am actually looking forward to getting into them. (I’ll be sharing those in another post, too.)

Again, my competitive nature wants me to not only set up goals for what I want to write and for when, but to also start dreaming of future successes from these projects. I am trying my very best to close the door on those thoughts; they have no place in these early stages of planning. Not only do they trick my mind into feeling as though I’ve already accomplished something before I’ve even started, making me somehow less motivated to get going, but they also rely on other people, luck and circumstances I have no control over. 

But I digress — much like the other day when I had planned a short hill repeat run and ended up exploring a new trail over 16k and 2 and a half hours. I came home revived though, and with a found phone I could reunite with its owner after some detective work. So, several birds with one stone there: explored a lovely new trail, got more exercise than I bargained for, did a good deed, and worked on my SAD! Not bad for a lazy Sunday.

2k in.

But as I’m writing this, it’s another Sunday, and this really will be a lazy one. Yesterday, I took my new hydration vest for a 16k spin over two and a half hours, talked to a couple of handsome geese, smiled at some newborn lambs climbing a wall to get to the tastiest leaves. Oh, and I also got to admire some very large and quite awe-inspiring cows that appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the footpath… Today is my rest day: a slow stroll to pet some horses, gentle yoga, a foot massage (by a machine, not a person, as I hate people touching my feet), a bath, some blogging, and baking. Just because I deserve it. 

New lazy Sunday friend.

So, what’s part of your anti-anxiety toolbox? And have you set any SAD goals or are planning to? Perhaps you’ve even achieved some of them already? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

The Three Stages of Lockdown: When Social Distancing Meets Social Anxiety

It feels almost impossible not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic in a blog dedicated to social anxiety disorder in 2021. After a year of social distancing, restrictions, surrounded by sickness and death, and working from home or being unemployed, I’m somewhat amused, or amazed, or something in between, that whilst there has been a lot written and talked about the negative impact on our mental health in mainstream media, there has been very little mention of specific struggles. Personally, I’m of course thinking in terms of SAD. 

Yes, the rise in loneliness, isolation, stress, and the negative impact the lack of social activities has had on people have been quite frequently discussed, but apart from a previously discussed The Guardian article on how to deal with post-lockdown anxiety, I haven’t really come across anything dealing particularly with SAD. 

Seeing as SAD is a fairly often misunderstood diagnosis, if it is even talked about at all, I’d welcome a more detailed and specific look at SAD in the news. For a lot of people, it seems the differences between shyness, introversion, moderate social anxiety, and social anxiety disorder is unclear. 

For my own part, I was always shy in certain social situations, which means I felt self-conscious and nervous, perhaps held back by my discomfort. Other times, I was not at all shy. I have always been an introvert, which means social situations tire me out, regardless of whether I feel shy, anxious, or am having a delightful time. I need a lot of time alone, to recharge, relax, and I generally enjoy being alone. Most of my hobbies are solitary activities (making music, writing, running, doing yoga, painting, reading, etc.). 

Over the years, shyness has lead to moderate social anxiety, which, untreated and ignored, has in turn lead to my diagnosis of generalised social anxiety disorder, which means I often experience panic attacks, severe anxiety, and physical symptoms such as trembling and shaking, sweating, inability to maintain eye contact, breathing difficulties, palpitations, dizziness, difficulty thinking clearly, crying, and so on. 

Whilst it is perfectly normal to feel anxious in some situations, like at job interviews, you could say it isn’t perfectly normal to feel so anxious you avoid even applying for jobs because of the intense fear of having to do an interview, let alone start a new job. 

And whilst it might be perfectly normal to feel a little nervous calling your doctor to make an appointment, or attend a doctor’s appointment, worrying about making the call for days or weeks beforehand — or avoid making the call at all — and then have a panic attack whilst you’re in the waiting room, might be a sign something isn’t quite right.

There is an enormous difference between preferring to be by yourself and being so afraid of being judged and evaluated you end up isolating yourself. 

There is an enormous difference between postponing important phone calls because you’re too busy, lazy, distracted, or unbothered and avoiding them because the thought of picking up the phone makes you physically ill. 

There is an enormous difference of avoiding avoidable, voluntary situations because you don’t actually need or want to challenge yourself and avoiding everyday, essential situations out of fear, potentially leading to ill health, unemployment, isolation, poverty, and depression. 

Whilst the true prevalence of social anxiety disorder is perhaps a little tricky to evaluate, since many people avoid seeking help and many cultural factors may also play a part, there is some research which suggests a clear correlation between social anxiety disorder and a myriad of other mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, generalised anxiety disorder, and personality disorders.

The Three Stages of Lockdown

Because this blog is primarily a way for me to a) enlighten non-SAD sufferers, b) hopefully create a space where other SAD people can find a friend, and also c) share my own story, I will summarise my own SAD pandemic year thus: 

  1. Entering Lockdown = Relief!
  2. Enduring Lockdown = Increased Anxiety…
  3. Exiting Lockdown = Full Panic Mode.

Upon entering lockdown, a number of positive changes happened for me. First, I began working from home. This meant no more open plan office, no more commuting on busy buses, no more logging in to my own personal phone anxiously waiting for it to ring whilst I felt scrutinised by everyone around me. I could choose when and how to interact with my colleagues and customers. I could choose to keep my camera and mic off during meetings. No one required me to make phone calls using my private cellphone. I could eat my lunch whenever, however, and nobody was watching me. I could use the toilet whenever I needed and never feel anxious because I was constipated or had diarrhoea — some might say this last one is weird, but the combination of irritable bowel syndrome and social anxiety disorder can be pretty awful for a lot of reason. (Stress and anxiety worsens IBS, and IBS worsens SAD, which worsen IBS, and so on and so forth.) Some people might feel perfectly happy stinking up a public bathroom, but for others, it is tremendously anxiety inducing. Just saying. 

The drop in anxiety and stress levels following my switch to working from home was liberating. I had more time for exercise. I had more time for my creative pursuits, being able to spend my lunch hours painting or recording, and closing my laptop at precisely 4 p.m. and be hard at writing five minutes later. 

This isn’t to say the pandemic didn’t hit me negatively as well. My partner was furloughed, which meant a reduction in income, not to mention the two of us being shut up in a small one bedroom house with no garden more or less 24/7… I have been anxious about catching Covid, anxious about my partner, friends, and family catching Covid, anxious about losing my job and my income, anxious even about my cat’s wellbeing, and I lost a loved one to Covid fairly early on. Being in a different country and with no way of going back home, I missed the funeral, I missed clearing out their house, I missed helping out with the house sale, not to mention supporting my family through it all. At Christmas, I lost another loved one to the same illness, and the cycle was repeated. 

As the year dragged on, I eventually did lose my job, and whilst I was financially fine to begin with, I probably don’t have to tell you how being unemployed in the midst of a pandemic is less than ideal. The lack of social interactions also meant that not only did I not see my friends or family at all, with the odd exception of the occasional walk with one friend living nearby, but I also had no way of working with my social anxiety. 

The relief of being able to be in my house, far from social situations and the anxiety they cause, soon turned into despair at how my wellbeing would ever improve. A cornerstone in working with social anxiety is to take small, manageable but regular steps to expose yourself to the things that cause you to feel anxious, so you can gradually learn that the worry that something awful will happen is worse than the actual situation: We often blow things out of proportion, seeing disaster where there might be only slight awkwardness, or perhaps nothing at all. 

Likewise, when you avoid anxiety-inducing situations, your anxiety will gradually increase and spread, as it has done for me through the years. This means that situations that may have started out as uncomfortable or awkward have now turned into personal nightmares, and the number of situations causing me anxiety have gone from specific (being on stage, public speaking, starting a new job or school) to generalised (the above, plus making and taking phone calls, visiting shops, eating in public, using public bathrooms — or friends’ bathrooms — going to parties, making small talk, answering the door when I’m not expecting someone, maintaining eye contact, and so on). 

Keeping Busy

However, I consider myself temporarily lucky. I’ve just started a part time, temporary contract at my old job, which means if I get another, entirely new job after this, I won’t be going from 0 to 100 overnight. I can slowly get used to socialising with people, albeit virtually, as I apply for other positions and take my gradual, regular baby steps. I’ve signed up for running races, increasing my effort from 5 to 13.1 miles in the next five months. I’m writing this blog. I make a point of calling a friend once a week. I push myself to answer the phone when it rings. I push myself to make phone calls when I have to. What else can I do?

The option would be to not do anything. To isolate myself. But, actually, I can’t. The added stress and anxiety of watching myself throw my life away, repeatedly letting opportunities for growth, happiness, and adventure pass me by, not to mention the financial struggle it entails, keeps me motivated. But it is hard, make no mistake. I’m now on antidepressants and that, coupled with my new exercise routine, coupled with the return of spring, makes all the difference. 

So, anyone else out there who has struggled with social anxiety during lockdowns? How have you coped? How do you feel about the gradual return to “normal”? Or have you struggled with any other mental health issues? Let’s open up the discussion about SAD and mental health! 

LinkedIn and a Flurry of Negative Emotions

The word of the day is Anxiety. Anxiety brought on by the mere thought of getting out there, making something of myself, utilising my strengths, letting my personality shine through. 

This week, I started setting up a LinkedIn profile, because every article and blogpost on how to make the most of your search for employment suggests you must have a LinkedIn profile — a sort of public CV to broadcast your achievements and employability. I figured I would give it an honest chance: what harm could come of it?

So I start adding my recent employment history, taking care not to add any specific descriptions other than company, job title, and the time I worked there, because if my former employers should read it, they might think I’m exaggerating my importance and skills. I add some education history, choosing only the most recent, longest courses, which means discarding several years worth of shorter, freestanding courses that make up the bulk of my higher education. I pick some skills, feeling increasingly unsure about the whole endeavour. I add the languages I speak, thinking long and hard about whether I should add French, which I have studied for years, but never felt confident enough to actually utilise. It suggests adding a photo, but I ignore it for now. 

I keep on tentatively building my professional profile, feeling impostor syndrome and my own innate inadequacies wash over me as I scroll through the list of people I may know: Editorial Assistants, Commissioning Editors, Creative Heads, Literary Agents, Publishers, Managers of all kinds, PhDs, freelancers, writers, successful people with titles that sound impressive, smiling faces, and nothing but positivity and professionalism. I see friends and old colleagues who have risen through the ranks, been promoted, moved on to new companies, new titles, greater challenges — many of them in the middle of a pandemic where I find myself unemployed and unable to get even a job as a picker packer. 

I keep scrolling, clicking “Connect” under the names of people I suspect will approve my request because I’ve had a decent working relationship with them. Each time, I feel more of an outsider. I find myself wondering where the hell I fit in. My greatest achievement was getting my Bachelor’s degree five years ago, and once I had finished my last exam, even that didn’t feel much of an accomplishment. 

The knot in my stomach tightens; my jaws are clenched and my shoulders and ears are just about level. I try to meditate, to allow myself ten minutes of not thinking or worrying or planning or ruminating, but it only seems to highlight the fact that I can’t take deep breaths. I hug my cat who purrs loudly but almost instantly starts a rigorous wash — I try not to take it personally. 

I feel disappointed in myself. Angry. Annoyed. I wish I had the courage to change my LinkedIn title from the anonymous “English Graduate” to “Socially Anxious English Graduate”, just to feel congruent. But I get the feeling that on LinkedIn and in wider society, the mental health issues we face should ideally be hidden away until we have garnered enough professional achievements that our disorders and instabilities have become a testament to our resilience — a triumph, a way for us to say: Hey, look how far I’ve come in spite of my mental health. Until then, our depressions, disorders, and anxieties should be tucked away out of sight because why should anyone give us a break when there is the risk of failure or need for additional, sometimes extensive, support and encouragement? 

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

I find a childhood friend’s profile. She has put “highly sensitive” in the description of herself, and I admire her for it. But then I see her extensive employment history with the word “manager” popping up every three lines, and I think to myself: she has earned the right to put “highly sensitive” there. I haven’t earned my “highly sensitive” or my “socially anxious”. I’m not even sure I’ve earned the “English graduate” title. And my skills? Writing, editing, proofreading, customer service, time management, organisational skills, English? Is my English good enough? I’m not a native speaker, so that surely puts me at a severe disadvantage. 

Stop. 

I put my phone away and decide to do what I do best: write about it. Write about myself, you might say. I let the rational part of my brain take over and tell me that I am by no means the only person to feel this way. It’s likely I’m not the only person in my circle of friends or ex-colleagues who feels this way. In fact, I know I’m not. I can name a dozen people who have either been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder, depression, burnouts, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addictions, ADHD, psychosis, postpartum depression, Aspergers, and so on. I can name a dozen others who have struggled with their mental health repeatedly or occasionally, who are still struggling or who have overcome their struggles; some who couldn’t. Many show no outward signs whatsoever and you wouldn’t think they had any problems at all. I can name many more who may not have struggled themselves, but who have witnessed loved ones struggle and several who have lost loved ones too. 

So why I am sitting here, fretting over what is essentially another social media site where we’re meant to broadcast and highlight our successes whilst hiding our failures and insecurities? Why do I feel like a liar when I add “literary criticism” or “academic writing” to my list of skills, when I have five years of university studies, a BA in English, and almost exclusively As to back up this claim? Why should I give myself a stomach ulcer just because other people have fancy titles and years of uninterrupted work progression to put on their CVs? 

My route is different. My life is different. I may not have an impressive CV to get a high paid status job anytime soon, but then that has never been my ambition either. I don’t want to be a manager or a leader. I don’t want to climb a corporate ladder. I don’t care if I become a millionaire. I want to be a writer. I want to be a musician. I want to paint. I want to grow a vegetable garden. I want to go horseback riding and kayaking and hiking and skiing. I want to earn a Masters in English Literature, just because I know I could do it. I want to run a marathon. I want to paint my walls green and yellow and blue, and I want to own cats and dogs and maybe a couple of goats. I want to live my life the way I want to, without being constantly held back by my irrational fears and insecurities. I want to be honest and congruent and not ashamed. I want to thrive. I want to be me.

So, I’ll start by ignoring everyone else’s titles on LinkedIn. I’ll add a photo, but I won’t agonise over my diverse CV lacking in direction. I am versatile. I am creative. I am sensitive. I am intelligent. I am independent. I am socially anxious — take it or leave it. 

On the Triviality of Anxiety

I read an article in The Guardian recently, which gave advice on how to deal with anxiety around coming out of lockdown and returning to “normal”. There was nothing very controversial in the article, and the advice was provided by clinical psychologists who are experts on treating anxiety, and the wonderful Nadia Finer from the Shy and Mighty Society. For me, there was nothing in there I didn’t already know, but I was happy to see someone taking these issues seriously as I know first hand how hard it can be to think you’re the only one to feel this way. 

But, of course, this is the internet in 2021, so the comments were, diverse, to say the least. A lot of people couldn’t wait to get back out there, meeting friends and strangers, going to pubs, travelling, etc. A lot of people couldn’t be bothered getting back into it as they had discovered they really didn’t mind being alone. Then there were a few, and one in particular, who couldn’t understand how anyone could feel anxious about “going for a beer in the sun with friends,” and suggested this was a tone-deaf article because there are people out there with real illnesses, who’ve been in ICU, who are suffering through wars, etc., and anxiety was a first-world triviality in comparison. Needless to say, this person had no experience of anxiety, and I assume they had never spoken to anyone who have experienced it either.

Luckily, there was quite a bit of pushback on this comment, especially from one person who had both personal and professional experience in the matter. But, of course, this is the internet in 2021, and the original commentator would not budge. Writing articles like those was irresponsible as it was essentially making a problem out of nothing, telling people how they should feel, and giving them a neat little label for it: Anxiety. Well, if only it were a neat little label and triviality! 

I would argue that comments like those are not only tone-deaf, but harmful. First of all, what this person misses entirely is the fact that one does not wake up one day with full-blown social anxiety disorder, but that it is a gradual change that starts with mild anxiety about “going for a beer in the sun with friends”. For some, treating this mild anxiety as trivial, can lead to a debilitating mental health disorder which often also causes depression, substance abuse, generalised anxiety, and a score of other mental- and physical health problems and untold suffering. On top of that, we are often also made to feel ashamed and guilty that we can’t be “normal” and that we can’t talk about it because it’s not like we have any “real” problems. It’s all in your head. It’s a weakness. It’s trivial.

I have a friend who is scared of butterflies. Now, to me, a butterfly is about the least frightening thing I can think of, apart from perhaps kittens and bumblebees. But my friend once locked herself in the kitchen while I was left with the task of chasing a small moth out the bedroom window. Which I gladly did, to I guess both my friend’s and the moth’s relief. Holding a moth in my hand brings on no anxiety whatsoever in me (although the first time I saw a Poplar Hawk-moth sitting on the wall of my house, I was a little freaked out by the sheer size of the magnificent beast. Once I had googled it and was assured it wasn’t a poisonous invasive species or the result of nuclear radiation, I was fascinated and busy keeping my cat from noticing it. And lucky me: I discovered there were two moths in my garden!). But who am I to judge my friend’s anxiety about a moth in her bedroom? I feel like locking myself in my kitchen whenever my phone rings, or when kids knock on my door at Halloween. 

I say: It’s time to break the stigma around SAD and educate people. I’m not sure writing an anonymous blog is the right way to do it, but it is my way of doing it. If it makes someone out there feel less alone in their suffering, then I’m happy. If it makes someone with no experience of social anxiety whatsoever learn something new, then I’m happy. If it is one small contribution to opening up about anxiety, then I’m happy too. I’m not ready to “come out” to my family or strangers on the internet in my own name just yet, but here’s my start.

And because working with social anxiety is made up of small, regular steps to challenge our fears, let me share my triumphant small step today. Having postponed making two phone calls for weeks, I finally decided to get them out of the way, figuring the best way to stop worrying about the many ways in which the phone calls could be disastrous, was to just make the damn calls and be done with it. Not that these were particularly difficult calls at all: one was to make a doctor’s appointment for myself, and the other to make a veterinary appointment for my cat. Both of these I have done numerous times before, and I actually struggle to think of a time when either of those calls turned out to be disastrous. 

So, this morning I wrote myself a short script to make sure I knew what I wanted to say. I am working towards not needing scripts at all, but for now, this is helpful to quiet the voice in my head that screams “I WON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY! I’LL STUMBLE ON MY WORDS! I’LL BE INCOHERENT!” as if the person on the other line has never struggled to understand what someone’s trying to say. As an aside, it is interesting to note that when I’m the one calling, I worry that my incoherence will make me seem stupid, but when I’m the one answering the phone, I worry that their incoherence will make me seem stupid. Go figure. 

Anyway, I had my short scripts, I made the calls, booked the appointments, and — nothing happened. Nobody laughed, nobody got annoyed I had called, nobody struggled to understand me, the reception was good, I understood them, there was no awkwardness, and NO ANXIETY. What I felt was more like slight nervousness. Perhaps my pulse went up a little bit, but there was no shaking, no sweating, no flushing, my mouth wasn’t dry, I didn’t stammer, I wasn’t at a loss for words. I highly doubt the person on the other line could have guessed I had postponed the call several weeks because of anxiety. 

I suppose this is what it is like for people who don’t experience social anxiety to make a simple phone call. How marvellous to be able to feel like that in all everyday situations! Perhaps I will one day, if I keep at it, keep taking these small, regular steps, and keep making myself aware of how often nothing bad happens. I know a lot of people would think it strange that calling the doctor or the vet would be cause for celebration, but I remember well all those times I’ve felt absolutely terrible making these kinds of calls, and how, afterwards, I found nothing celebratory in it, but just told myself I was a loser for ever feeling anxious about such trivial matters in the first place. 

And I guess that’s my point: there is nothing trivial about social anxiety disorder. There is nothing trivial about mild anxiety, either, no matter what some anonymous commentator on the internet, your co-worker, your teacher, your partner, or your friend may suggest. Let’s stop minimising the often hidden struggles in ourselves and others, and instead support each other to make the most of our lives.

Welcome, Reader

The stage is set: the lights are dimmed, the audience hushed, and you’re ready to go. You take a deep breath and walk to the centre, sit down, pick up your guitar. You curse your legs for shaking, your hands for trembling; your mouth is dry, and doesn’t it feel extraordinarily warm? Why did you choose this outfit when you know how your face flush and armpits gush? Is your guitar properly tuned? Oh no! You didn’t check it before you started playing, and now you can’t stop and tweak, and what if you break a string? What are the lyrics anyway? Shouldn’t you have introduced yourself before you started playing? You’ll have to do it after this song. It sounds stupid, though — they obviously know your name as it’s on the poster. And in any case, your voice sounds like a ten-year-old’s when you speak, so you better not speak. Maybe try the whole “quiet and mysterious”-act. What if you just come across as pretentious? Arrogant? Insecure? You are pretentious, arrogant, and insecure. Confidence is everything. Someone’s talking. You’re obviously boring them. They don’t like you. You shouldn’t be here. Why are you here? Why should anyone listen to you? You’ve nothing to say. You’re not even talented. You look weird. You probably come across as a stupid. A vapid blonde who can’t write songs and can’t tune her guitar either. Amateur. You might have gotten away with it if you were remotely attractive, but you’re not. You can’t stop now though — it’ll be even more humiliating to run off the stage. You’ll never be able to show your face in public again. Loser.

The thing about social anxiety is it can make being creative incredibly difficult. First there’s the art of learning a craft, be it playing an instrument, writing a sonnet, woodcarving a pair of earrings, or tattooing Swedish folk art on people’s calves — the first three you can do in complete isolation, so usually social anxiety won’t be the starting issue there. However, it gets infinitely trickier when the urge to actually share your craft materialises like an obsessive compulsion. This is when you are really forced to face your fears. But how? And why?

The Sad Creative’s Journey

First, you might reasonably ask: 

“What qualifies you to write about social anxiety and creativity anyway?” 

While I’m certainly no expert on the psychology behind it, or causes and treatments for that matter, I happen to be a bit of an expert on living with social anxiety disorder, or SAD (not to be confused with seasonal affective disorder, which I also happen to have — so, seasonally, twice as SAD) and struggling with my creative pursuits as a result. 

I was diagnosed with social anxiety when I was in my mid twenties, but I had of course already lived with the anxiety a good six or seven years prior to seeking help. (Not seeking help, and thinking you’re the only one who feels this way are sadly very common, for obvious reasons.) I spent my childhood on one stage after another, small and large: first miming and dancing, heavily into the whole nineties look-alike-thing — I even won a competition! Then, at twelve, I began writing my own music and performing it. I had my first, paid gig when I was thirteen — I even won a competition!

The point is, I never suffered stage fright in my life. Except, somehow, in my early twenties, I realised I did. 

So what happened to the girl who took her guitar with her EVERYWHERE, and never once uttered the words “I’d rather not” when asked to play something? When had I become someone scared of making eye-contact with an audience, awkward just introducing herself, and whose favourite part of performing was coming home, putting on her pyjamas to sit on the sofa and read?

Well, it didn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure. I can’t say exactly why it happened, except maybe the tendency to be sensitive and shy was there all along, and years of squirrelling away criticisms and discarding praise somehow left very little room for positivity and courage.

For me, sharing my music is hard: I don’t like making videos, I abhor the obligatory selfie, and I’m yet to dare try live streaming a gig from my sitting room. My social media presence is a joke, and even if we were allowed to do live gigs in this pandemic world, I would find excuses not to. But because I’ve kept at it for so long, it is far easier for me to write a song, record it, and post it in my own name online than it is for me to, say, share my thoughts in writing. (You will have noticed this blog is published under a pseudonym.)

Yet, during my university studies, I wrote in my own name all the time, and actively sought courses focused on writing. But when my professor told me one of my articles was publishable, what was the one word that came to mind? Unthinkable. If I tried to published it, it might be rejected outright, or, if actually published, people would question it, criticise it, dismiss it. Forget that:

a) I was actually proud of the hard work I put into it

b) it received an A

c) I read it a year later and marvelled at how I’d been able to conjure such intelligent thoughts and articulate them so eloquently. 

Now? It sits in a drawer collecting dust, like so much potential. 

In all my years studying, never once did anybody indicate I was inadequate; never once did I fail a course, exam, or assignment. In fact, I often aced my exams, received nothing but encouragement and great grades. You’d think this would bolster my confidence and help me pursue a career based on my love of writing, but no. Social anxiety and the doubt it continuously feeds my brain, rarely allows for fickle things like praise. Or it might, momentarily, until I find myself questioning what this titled academic with twenty years’ experience teaching postgraduates really knows anyway— how do I know they’re not actually incompetent, or that they’re not just be trying to be nice?

Blogophobia?

I actually started a blog last year, intending to hone my skills and write intelligently, emotionally, honestly — in my own name, too! But guess what? I chickened out. What if it was terrible, amateurish, and embarrassing? What if I was terrible, amateurish, and embarrassing? Never mind this was my first attempt at something akin to a serious blog, a way to build a portfolio, test the waters, and so on. Another thing about social anxiety is it leaves no room for failure, thus, growth. 

But I’m giving it another go. This blog will be dedicated to the debilitating effect social anxiety can have on life in general, and creativity in particular, even in a person who’s spent the past thirty-three years dreaming, trying, and wanting to live a creative life aligned with what’s inside, desperate to come out. 

I’m not here to write peppy posts on how to overcome a mental disorder and reach your full potential: there are a million “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”-type instruction blogs out there, and I doubt their efficacy when you’re deep in shame, fear, and doubt. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess it often has the opposite effect, sowing more shame, fear, and doubt: “If this doesn’t work, I must be a hopeless case.”

What I will do, then, is write about what it’s like to be a creative person and live, day by day, with a mental disorder that chips away at your confidence, your rational reasoning, and even your desire to do the things you love to do, the things you know in your heart you were born to do; a disorder which restricts you, and leaves you feeling isolated, useless, and ashamed.

It won’t be a dark, self-deprecating place filled with complaints and rants (although I’m prone to ranting — silently, in my own head, obviously, as not to cause a stir). Instead, I’ll attempt to fill this space with something constructive and hopeful, using a sense of humour. Because after all, there is no point being nuts if you can’t have a little fun.