On Monday, I tried to go food shopping and failed miserably at the entrance to Co-op Food. In fact I have tried about 3 times this month, but the overwhelming feeling of it all being too much, what to buy, what to cook, what’s the point, always begins to engulf me. I have prepared a list, I have a plan for the week, but right now, right here - it means nothing. I realise I can’t breathe properly, tears well up in my eyes, I don’t want to be here, I’m embarrassed, I’m in public, I need to get out of here. I’m paralysed, I’m scared, I can’t move, it feels like everything is caving in on me. I want to disappear. My heart is beating so fast. Tears roll down my cheeks and I gather the strength to dart back to my car.
3 times. 3 times Soph? I’m angry with myself. Embarrassed. ‘Just online shop’, a friend advised. Another concerned friend brought round dinner last night. And I nod and say thank you, but deep down I realise that won’t solve the problem and I need to get a grip and work this out.
Despite rearing its ugly head with a vengeance at the moment, I have suffered from Social Anxiety which lead to such panic attacks, on and off since I was 11 years old. I remember rushing out of an art lesson, face flushed, not being able to breathe, crying. The teacher kept asking what happened. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t tell her nothing had happened. Just that it all felt too much. Just that I hated school, making friends was so painful and the small act of coming to another lesson - the thought of another hour had pushed me over the edge. I couldn’t say that, so I said nothing. My panic attacks were my nameless secret, and as the years passed, I learnt to cope with what I later learnt was called Social Anxiety.
According to the NHS, Social Anxiety is “a persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations… It can be intense fear and anxiety over simple everyday activities, such as shopping or speaking on the phone.” The NHS state that it is also more common in women and often “starts during childhood or adolescence” and can lead to panic attacks where the victim has physical symptoms such as a pounding heart, sweating, blushing or even difficulty breathing. In the article “Overcoming Social Anxiety in a Social Media World” in Psychology Today, journalist Shimi Kang argues that social media is responsible for increasing Social Anxiety amongst young people today. She writes that based on a recent study by the University of Michigan and University of Missouri “there is a direct connection between heavy social media usage (specifically Facebook), and feelings of depression and envy…The feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, anxiety and depression are often a result from the daily unhealthy self-comparisons people make to their peers and strangers online.”
Since my first digital detox last year (see previous post), I’ve been increasingly aware of this – and have scaled back my social media usage over time. But as an artist, as a Millennial and lover of pop culture; social media does have an important place in my life. In both celebrating the otherwise mundane (I mean, how else do I celebrate the beauty in a cup of tea in a gorgeous mug in the local coffee shop?) and crucially, in generating real opportunities for my life and work.
“Don't you realise, you’re people's goals Soph”, my friend said to me yesterday, when I confided in the fact I was having Social Anxiety difficulties. I laughed. In this age of 'likes', inspirational quotes, and the perfect filtered image, it may seem so. ‘Relationship goals’ ‘career goals’ , ‘life goals’ are terms so easily chucked around these days – personally I hate it - what do we really know about anyone’s real life? “But in real life” my friend went on, “you have your shit together”. Again, I laughed.
I guess if you met me, I may appear to. I'm smart, educated, outwardly confident, friendly and know exactly what I want and what I believe in. You wouldn’t know that I struggle to do the most basic things. And that’s because, as someone once said to me - I always question my right to exist; to achieve; to take up space on this Earth. Social Anxiety does this – it chaps away at your confidence and negates your successes; it doesn’t care if you have a masters degree, if you just booked the biggest job of your career, that you just bought a house, or that people genuinely love you. It tells you that you aint shit and that you can’t cope and that everyone else knows it too.
Day to day, me, and others with the disorder, find strategies - or simply avoid situations in order to shut this destructive Social Anxiety voice out. This is why we seem like such a contradiction at times. For example, I love discussions but hate small talk; Trump, Feminism, Black Lives Matter, yes, but the weather? So and so’s haircut? I may smile and grin but please nooo. I LOVE being on stage, pretending to be someone else but I hate attention – I have been known to run off a red carpet mid interview! I am very sociable but I hate socialising; for example love going out dancing with my friends – as long as I don’t have to talk to random people. And I absolutely love one-to –one conversation and have lots of close friends, but put me in a large group and I will almost instantly ‘disappear’ - metaphorically via iPhone or even literally via the door.
I guess at least I’m in good company. A- listers such as Adele, Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson have all come out and admitted they have suffered with Social Anxiety at some point in their life. I can’t help but wonder why it is so common in women (no matter how successful)? I wonder if the pressures society puts on us to act a certain way, look a certain way, and behave a certain way - are so contradictory and unattainable, that from a young age, we simply shut down and just decide we aren’t good enough.
But whatever the causes of Social Anxiety, and it will be different for each of us, we must fight against it. We must listen to our confident rational self that knows who we are and what we've achieved and what we are capable of. That rational self will always find a strategy and let us prevail. So as for me, this evening at 8pm I’m going to try my small local M&S. I figure the lack of people and the luxury food may do it. Tissues at the ready, inhaler in hand and list in phone, I’m ready. Let’s go.