@Social_anx is a Twitter page sharing relatable stories, polls and anonymous submissions about social anxiety. In this article, I interview the person behind the Twitter handle on their own experience having this illness, as well as their views and advice surrounding broader issues in mental health. In their own words, here is a brief introduction:
I’ve suffered to varying degrees from a number of anxiety-related disorders throughout most of my life, but the longest standing and hardest of those to overcome has been social anxiety. I feel as though it dictates exactly how I live my life, has shaped friendships, relationships, my education and my career, and has severely impacted my self-esteem. I genuinely believe I will never overcome it, but hope one day to manage it better than I do today – and to not beat myself up for feeling the way I feel!
I set up a Twitter account (social_anx) initially as a place to let out those embarrassing, strange and illogical thoughts I have on a daily basis (e.g. “I can’t get up to go to the toilet. What if someone else gets up at the same time and they get there before me, and I’m left standing outside the toilet looking like a fool? Or what if I get there before them and they hate me for it?”) – but quickly it grew into a place for other socially anxious people to share their experiences and discover a small community of people who, like themselves, might also be somewhat socially isolated.
What is it like to go through mental illness?
From a social anxiety perspective, I’ve never known it be any other way. From a very early age I accepted my social anxiety as a huge part of my personality (for many years I was described just as ‘painfully shy’ or ‘weird’), and spent so many years wondering why simple things were so much harder for me than they seemed to be for other people: struggling to make friends, to ask the teacher for help, or even to be known to have a harmless crush on a popstar. I deprived myself of a ‘normal childhood’ and ‘normal experiences’ in my teen and early adult years, and of course found it to be very lonely, and over time the impact of these behaviours severely knocked my self-esteem, in turn making it even harder to overcome the anxiety.
What does stigma mean to you? How has it affected you?
It’s the thing that stops you from being open about your struggles. Rarely does anyone feel embarrassed telling someone that they broke their arm or caught a cold, but so few people will call into work sick because of their mental health.I’ve pushed on through difficult times rather than seeking help because I’ve worried that people will snigger behind my back and call me crazy; I’ve made up excuses for my behaviour rather than admitting that my social anxiety is the cause. Only recently have I begun to be more open about it, and so far have received nothing but support from family, friends and colleagues.
Which mental health stigma hurts or irritates you most?
I’ve grown up around others with mental health disorders, and the most disappointing reaction I’ve seen from people is a kind of attitude of disgust, that look of “stay away, it might be catching”. This seems to be more common towards people experiencing symptoms of psychosis, which I find particularly disappointing because it shows a real lack of understanding of the severe emotional distress that that person is going through.
What is something you wish people would say to you if you told them you suffer with mental health problems?
My favourite reaction so far was when I told the person who later became my partner that I suffer from social anxiety. He said, “I had no idea, you’ve never shown any sign of that with me. What’s it like?” He never rubbished anything I said, and instead talked generally about other mental health struggles, and how they manifest differently in other people. He made me feel ‘normal’.
How can we help combat the feelings of shame tied to mental illness?
More discussion. I think we’ve already come a long way to reducing the stigma, and the more that people talk about their experiences, the more others will feel able to step forward and seek the support they need.It certainly helps when a person is brave enough to start the discussion about their mental health, and they’re met with openness and non-judgemental, practical methods of support.
What would you class as unhealthy coping habits?
Some of the things I classify as unhealthy habits I might at other times class as healthy. For example, in the past I found it impossible to go into a shop, pick up an item and go to the counter to pay for it. I would either get my mum to pay on my behalf, or I would walk out of the shop empty-handed.The only way for me to overcome this was by actually doing it – at first with someone I trusted at my side, and eventually I was able to work up to doing it completely alone. It would have been unhealthy to have consistently relied upon my mother to help me.But sometimes you need to be easy on yourself. If you have already overcome five different hurdles that week, and you’re feeling tired and fragile and on the brink of giving up… just stop. I don’t believe you have to face every hurdle all at once. Say to yourself, “I have done a lot to be proud of and I’ve worked hard to get better. But now it’s time for me to look after myself for a minute.”
What are your most effective coping skills? Which do you find work best in your recovery?
I like to surround myself with people I love and trust, to act silly and laugh and give myself time to do things which don’t require a ton of thought.It took me years to learn that consistent exercise really does help. There are days I feel so down or anxious that the most prevailing thought is, “Just go to bed. Go to sleep. Give up.” I’ve been routinely lifting for several years, and by the end of a session, no matter how little motivation I had at the start of it, I feel lighter, less anxious, stronger and a real sense of accomplishment.
What is your opinion on the current mental health system in your country?
I think the NHS is currently severely underfunded and this has unfortunately had a major impact on mental health services, but the attitude and knowledge of professionals in the mental health sector is for the most part fantastic. In my experience, no matter how busy they may be, GPs always find the time to talk about mental health.
Can you offer an affirmation, quote or mantra that has helped you in difficult times?
“Confidence is not ‘They will like me’; it’s ‘I’ll be fine if they don’t.’” – Unknown
How do you suggest one can provide helpful support to someone struggling with their mental health?
I think this is very difficult unless you have a real understanding of the mental health problem in question. I have a good idea about anxiety and to a degree depression, but would not have the first clue how to support someone with, for example, an eating disorder. A good foundation for any mental health problem has got to be in approaching the situation prepared not to take anything personally, to be resilient and to remind the person that you’re in their corner, even if it may not always seem like it.
If you know someone with social anxiety and you want to support them, understand first that what may be simple to you might be a mammoth task for them, and if they show reluctance to engage, start somewhere small. If you want them to go to a party with you, make sure when you first walk in that you don’t immediately leave their side. Introduce them to somebody you think they might get on with, and hang around long enough for them to relax a little. Check in with them and give them ample opportunity to take a breather, go outside and recover a little if they need to.
Often, you hear advice telling you to “just be yourself”. Why is this so often difficult?
I think there are many different manifestations of oneself, and we present each of these depending on the group we’re around or the situation we’re in. I think everyone monitors their behaviour to an extent (you wouldn’t go to a job interview and immediately start cracking jokes or swearing, even if that’s how you act at home), and for people with social anxiety this is exaggerated. Every social situation is a job interview. The interaction with the woman selling you baked beans, and the way you come across to her, is as important as the interaction your average Joe would have applying for a new job.
What advice might you give to someone struggling with social anxiety?
I sometimes have people approach me for advice on dealing with their social anxiety, and I always feel like a total hypocrite, preaching advice that I struggle to follow myself.But one thing I have to constantly have to remind myself to do (and would encourage anyone else with social anxiety to remind themselves, too) is to remove the blame. It’s very easy to beat yourself up for feeling the way you feel, but be kind to yourself and treat yourself the way you would treat a friend.