I’ve said on the blog before that I struggle with social anxiety, but I haven’t written a post specifically about it. So that’s what I’m going to write about today. More specifically, in this post I’m going to turn the clock back twenty years and briefly describe how my social anxiety first developed while I was at school. The aim is simply to give an idea of what living with this problem was like.
What exactly is “Social Anxiety”?
I like the description given on Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health organisation I came across while preparing this post:
It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous in social situations where we might come under the attention of others, whether they’re strangers or people we know. Attending a formal function, giving a speech at a wedding, doing a presentation to work colleagues are likely to cause nervousness and anxiety, both in the lead-up and during the event.
However, for people with social phobia [sometimes known as social anxiety disorder], performing in front of others and social situations can lead to intense anxiety. They may fear being judged, criticised, laughed at or humiliated in front of others, even in the most ordinary, everyday situations. … (… such as having a meal with friends, or making small talk)
I’ve picked out the bit in bold as I think it’s the most important. Social anxiety is related to the fear of being judged by other people, and the consequences that might follow.
When it’s really bad, the basic feeling of anxiety can be accompanied by a number of physical symptoms, such as feeling nauseous, sweating, a pounding heartbeat or “panic attacks”.
How and why did my social anxiety problems start?
Looking back over my childhood and adolescence, it’s pretty easy to trace how my trouble with social anxiety got worse over time. For me, it was largely a learned behaviour – i.e., I learned to become anxious in social arenas as a response to situations I was in and events that happened to me.
Socially, between the ages of 8 and 18 I didn’t fit in that well at school. Most children on their own are friendly enough, but put them into a group and all kinds of additional social dynamics come into play – and who’s in/out socially becomes very important. It can get quite nasty. For me things got much worse with the change from junior to senior school at 13. A particular “highlight” of this year was the game “shoot a BB gun at the person you know can’t fight back, because you like the sounds he makes as he tries to squirm out of the way.”
Yup, some of my childhood sucked.
I was never in much physical danger, as the Ball Bearings in question were only plastic rather than metal, so they stung when they hit you but could only do real damage if you were unlucky and got caught in the eye (which thankfully never happened). But still, I hated being tormented in this way. As a teenager I spent a lot of time on my own and lonely. I did make some friends. However, I spent far more time on my own feeling lonely than I did in positive interactions with them.
Being mocked, and not fitting in, made me highly self-conscious and anxious about trying to join in with my peers most of the time. In addition to this I had several other sources of anxiety:
The first came from the authority figures around me, who were mostly teachers. As you’d probably expect, they often used verbal threats to get cooperation. Nothing unusual there! But actually for me this posed a problem in two ways:
- Some threats were made in the “class punishment” style: e.g. if the teacher returns and the whole class is not behaving, the whole class gets kept back at break. This sounds like a small thing, but it wasn’t for me. As someone who didn’t fit in well socially, I had no influence over what the rest of the class did. Result: whether I got punished became separated from what I personally did. It was arbitrary. This was made worse by staff suggesting I should be exerting some kind of restraining influence on my peers, as the expectation I felt under was not something that I could reasonably have met.
- Some threats were made performance related: e.g. “if you don’t get over 90% in the test next week you’ll be put in detention”. For one particularly fierce member of staff this 90% figure… actually isn’t an exaggeration. By nature I was obedient and believed what teachers told me, even if their threats were never realised. The lesson I learnt was that genuinely doing one’s best isn’t good enough. You have to be academically perfect to avoid harm.
Mentally I learned to divide authority figures into two groups: people who threatened me (who I was afraid of), and people who didn’t (who I liked).
The second additional source of anxiety was physical. This time, three examples:
- As a child I had a mortal dread of swimming in water I couldn’t stand up in without being able to reach out and hold on to something. Our school had a swimming pool. Swimming was not optional. Every time swimming came up, my heart sunk. I was just afraid I’d drown the whole time. (The pool was only five to ten yards wide, so looking back this wasn’t likely… but it felt that way.)
- This next example may sound trivial, but made a big difference to me at the time! For some reason, I loathe baked beans. I don’t know why. I like all the ingredients. But put them together and something about the taste and texture just makes me gag. Relevance? In our school dining hall baked beans were often dished out whether you wanted them or not. And often we weren’t allowed to leave until we’d finished eating everything on our plates – which would be fine if there had been a choice. Consequence: even eating lunch became a source of anxiety as there was no way to avoid being arbitrarily made to feel physically unwell.
- This one definitely isn’t trivial. I was born in the mid-1980s in the South of England, only an hour away from London. During the early 1990s, the IRA bombed several London stations including Victoria in 1991, and a year later London Bridge. These were stations we used on outings, such as going to visit my grandparents. I had heard about these events on the news (who hadn’t?) and picked up on anxiety both there and from people around me. I remember being anxious while travelling in cities as a result.
Through things like these, I often felt physically afraid and experienced this type of fear as essentially unavoidable – something I could do nothing about.
So, overall in my childhood I learned to be afraid, and was anxious most of the time. Any of the things listed above on their own might not have been a problem. But the cumulative effect was overwhelming. Fear became the dominate lens through which my social interactions with the wider world were mediated. I was afraid of trying to interact with groups of my peers. Afraid in class. Afraid outside of class. Even often afraid while having lunch – as a teenager I often didn’t even go for lunch, it was just too stressful, surviving during the daytime on a diet of sweets, crisps and biscuits (I was stimulating the local economy! Or at least the sweet shop and the dentist’s… .) And I became horribly risk-averse.
The above all sounds rather negative. Looking back as an adult, I can see that there may have been other ways of looking at things, or things I could have done differently. But the above is how I experienced life as a child – which is what is relevant for understanding how my social anxiety problems started. I didn’t have anyone to talk to most of the time who could offer me a broader perspective. And even if I did, getting mocked and not fitting in socially meant that I learned not to be vulnerable and express my feelings or what I was thinking. So it would have actually been pretty hard to help me.
When did the physical symptoms start?
Although I was often anxious, it wasn’t until sixth form that I started to suffer physical symptoms. Whereas the original social anxiety developed gradually, this new phase was triggered suddenly.
The immediate cause was developing a case of “stomach trouble” one morning shortly after arriving at school. In all likelihood it was my own fault for consuming rather more super-strong homemade pasta al’arabbiata at home the night before than was sensible… at any rate, I felt under pressure from two directions: the first, my stomach, and the second, the expectation to take part at school. In the end I think I went home ill. After a few days off I got taken to the doctor, who (treating the symptoms I described, my stomach) thought I probably had gastroenteritis and gave me a course of codeine-containing medicine. Thereafter I did return to school, but for a while I would only go in mid-morning – my stomach felt dodgy first thing, but by nine or ten I perked up and went in late.
In hindsight I’m pretty sure that, while something had been up with my stomach initially, it was probably only for an hour or two. The rest was anxiety related. I had lost confidence in my body to behave itself (which had previously been reliable). Each morning when I first woke up, I felt under social pressure and my stomach naturally didn’t feel great. Now that I didn’t trust my body, worrying about this too was the final straw. Cue panic attack. When the pressure of having to go into the rigid social environment of school was released, the fight-or-flight hormones eventually dissipated. My mind could see that my stomach was actually fine. I calmed down, and could face going back to school. The next day, rinse and repeat.
This pattern of social anxiety and frequent panic attacks continued into my adulthood.
Briefly, how have things gone since then?
Since leaving school I’ve always had some level of social anxiety. Sometimes a lot better, but sometimes actually worse: for a two-year period around the age of thirty I was badly agoraphobic and hardly went out at all. It was at this point that I finally sought some help from my GP.
Talking about agoraphobia is a post of its own for another day. It’s now some four or five years later. While I’m not entirely anxiety free, things are a lot better.
So there’s a short summary of how social anxiety first began for me and how it developed during my adolescence. I hope reading it has been informative and thought provoking.
According to the NHS page on social anxiety it’s a common problem, and usually begins when someone is a teenager. So I was pretty typical. But as a teenager it wasn’t something I’d heard of, let alone something for which I knew you could get help. I didn’t seek any help until I was in my late twenties. This is also common: according to this NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) publication people often wait for 15 years or more.
Hopefully through writing this article I’ll do a small bit to raise awareness. If what I’ve written strikes a chord with you and you want to follow it up this NHS page is a good place to start.
See you in the next post!