I have anxiety disorder. I am not sure how to explain this to someone who has not experienced a panic attack. I hate grocery stores. Eight years ago I would leave my half-filled cart in the back of the store and bolt. I hate them because I can’t see who is around the corner, on the next aisle. It stems from an abusive relationship, but just this past weekend I felt that panic again.
Let me try my best to explain a panic attack in words: your heart races, you begin to sweat, you physically tremble, you are afraid of everyone around you, you want to run far and fast – away from the situation you are in. People like me have compulsions. I count to ten over and over again. I scratch the flesh of my right hand – leaving ugly scars. Some people pull out their hair, even their eyelashes. You see, anxiety is a strange beast.
Over the years I have learned how to handle social anxiety as best I can. I want to share what I’ve learned with you.
- You are not always REQUIRED to be where you are.
Say you are at a concert and people keep touching you and bumping into you – move somewhere else. A few months ago I went to see a band I love. I was up close. It was great – until people started pushing to get to the front of the crowd. Here’s the thing, I don’t like people (especially their hair!!!) touching me if I don’t know them. Weird? Whatever. So I moved to the back of the venue. Sure, I wasn’t as close, but I was much more comfortable.
- Excuse yourself.
Oh, the ladies bathroom or someone’s guest bathroom, my temporary sanctuary. If things get too intense, you feel yourself slipping into anxiety mode, excuse yourself and go to the restroom. You can sit on the toilet lid and breathe deeply as easily as you can stand in a public stall and do your relaxation breathing. Wait ’til you’ve calmed down, then go back to the social situation. I’ve done this at bars, theaters, and family functions. It works.
- Touch someone.
I know, another strange one, but I have found that when I am in the midst of severe anxiety or near-panic attack mode, touching someone, or better yet, have someone else touch me helps. Now, I don’t mean go up to a stranger at Target and ask them to hold you. Sometimes when I start getting anxious my boyfriend will put his hand on my leg if we are sitting down. I’ve reached out and just held on to my mom’s arm before. The thing is, it grounds you. It reaffirms that you are not in this alone.
- Have your medication handy.
Some of us take medication to manage our anxiety and my regiment seems to keep things pretty manageable most of the time. Maybe your psychiatrist has prescribed you Xanax to take as needed. There will be times you need it. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to take medication for a mental illness. I keep a few extra pills in this handy holder on my key chain (got it CVS near the pharmacy counter). Most likely, I will always have, or know where, my keys are in an anxiety emergency.
- Deep breathing and visualization.
These two work pretty much anywhere you are (even if you are hiding out in the bathroom). These two tools have helped me manage social anxiety many times. So what is “deep breathing?” It is simply breathing in as you count in your head to ten, then gently blowing that air back out for a count of ten. If ten is too hard start out with a lower count. You could be sitting in a movie theater and practice deep breathing or on the way to a party.
Visualization usually requires you to close your eyes, so you may want to sneak off to a quite space for a few minutes. Imagine your favorite place – a place that always makes you happy. For me, it is a coffee shop I used to frequent with a deck outside on a lake where I can watch turtles swim. I visualize myself sitting in the sun, drinking a latte, and smiling. Give it a few minutes to really relax into the visualization. Your anxiety won’t be nearly as bad when you are done.
See, there are healthy ways of dealing with social anxiety. You don’t have to scratch your wrist raw or bite your nails to the quick or pull out your hair. I understand, that for some of us, we haven’t conquered those compulsions yet, but we are all a work in progress. Don’t let anxiety keep you from enjoying being around others. Keep these tips in mind. I hope they help you.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net