Imagine not being able to show up to your Biology class in college after your Professor announces that you will be required to present your project to your peers.You are normally terrified of raising your hand anyway even when you are dying to speak up and contribute, so this would be just unbearable. Everyone will be staring at you and you will be the center of attention. You won’t be able to think or speak clearly, because you’ll be self-conscious about whether your voice will quiver, whether your face is bright red, or whether what you say will be completely stupid and absurd. The anxiety is just too much to bear—so you skip the class to avoid this horrible situation.
Imagine being asked out on a date by someone that you really like but having to cancel, because you have horrible anxiety of what the person that asked you will think about how you look. Your internal dialogue includes the worst possible scenarios of how you’ll look too fat and unappealing. To spare yourself of any embarrassments and humiliation, you say “no” to a simple coffee although you would love to get to know this person better. Even when you call to cancel, you sit and analyze what you said, what tone it was said in and how it was perceived by the other person. Your anxiety and racing thoughts convince you that you messed up this conversation like you always do and will never be able to face the person again. You get embarrassed just thinking about any future dating situations.
These are insanely debilitating and paralyzing situations that repeat themselves every day in all facets of your life: family, work, relationships, etc. You feel like you are a prisoner in your own body not able to speak or act.
Welcome to my life just a few years ago. Any type of social interaction was difficult for me. I always felt that everyone was judging and staring at me (even though rationally I knew this wasn’t true). I could never fully relax when other people were around. I always felt like others were evaluating me, being critical of me and judging me in some way. I felt extreme self-consciousness and judgment when I was in any person’s presence. Even when I was around family and close friends, I always felt overwhelmed and had the feeling that they were noticing my every movement and critiquing my every thought. I felt like I was being observed critically at a microscopic level and that people were making negative judgments about me. Exponentially multiply the fear of public speaking that most people have and you will experience how I felt in ANY social interaction.
I felt this way as long as I can remember. I was often known as the “smart, but very shy and sensitive girl” in my childhood and growing up. I started to realize in college that this was not normal, and that I needed to find out what was wrong with me and treat it, or I would be seriously limited in all facets of my life.
So I did. After one session with a psychologist, I was told that I have social anxiety or phobia. This was not just regular shyness, sensitivity or fear of public speaking. I later found out that social anxiety is the third largest psychological problem in the world today. Most people don’t even know that they have this problem and to make things worse, social anxiety is misunderstood by the general public and by medical and mental health care professionals. It is often times misdiagnosed and if left untreated, it can lead to depression or serious addictions. People with social anxiety sometimes never get the nerve to speak up or realize it’s too late that they need to seek help.
I was relieved to find out that I was the not the only one suffering with this problem and was determined to seek any treatment possible to end my years of crippling anxiety and I wanted my life back. I attended regular therapy sessions, but then discovered that there was a particular treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that was effective in treating social anxiety. So I began months of this treatment. It helped somewhat, but I was told that medication would be the ultimate answer to my problem, and I would be able to lead a better life. Out of pure desperation and wanting to get my life back, I began taking three forms of medication in my late twenties. And rather quickly I became hooked on these drugs.
What I didn’t realize was that although my anxiety began to lessen, I also began to grow numb to any feelings at all. It’s as if I didn’t really feel anything; there was no more anxiety and pain, but I also couldn’t feel joy or love. I lived this way for several years, and all I cared about was finally being able to function “normally” around people in personal and professional situations. I hid all of this from my family and close friends. No one knew about all the treatments or the drugs.
I finally “woke up” and realized what I was doing to myself about three years ago. I had been practicing yoga for several years, and my practice had forced me to be really honest with myself. I learned about meditation and the fact that my thoughts were not really who I was. This social anxiety was not ME. These destructive thoughts were not ME. Could I conquer this with my yoga practice and meditation? I had to try.
I told my psychiatrist that I wanted to get off the medication and didn’t feel right about placing all these chemicals in my body for the rest of my life. I knew they were changing my brain chemistry and ultimately my way of being. He advised me that this would be difficult and I couldn’t just stop cold-turkey, because I might get some awful withdrawal symptoms. They included a decrease in appetite, loss of energy, shakiness and sometimes my brain felt like it were shifting in my skull. He decreased the dosage of each medication each year for about two years, and I was finally able to stop all the medication a few months ago. I’ve turned to yoga and vipassana (mindfulness) mediation to help me conquer my anxiety. My daily 20 minute meditation practice helps me to become aware of any of negative and irrational thoughts, challenge them or let them go and focus on my breath. My physical yoga practice helps me to stay healthy in my body, mind and spirit.
I don’t know what caused this social anxiety in the first place – whether it was my nurture or nature (genes, life experiences or neurotransmitters in my brain or a combination of these). But what I do know is that I’ve been able to successfully treat it with yoga and meditation. I no longer avoid social situations, or have excessive fears about being judged and evaluated by others. My quality of life has dramatically improved. In fact, I’m currently teaching yoga and lead world-wide retreats (and my day to day activities involve interacting with people, building relationships and speaking in front of people).
Why am I speaking out now? Because I want to share my story with people that may be suffering from this disorder and not know it, and I want them to know that they can find relief through yoga and meditation and NOT medication. I also want to let my family and friends know that there may have been times in the past when I wanted to reach out and speak out my condition, but I just couldn’t. I know it was me that sabotaged several personal and professional opportunities and maybe ruined some relationships, but I’m speaking out from my heart now. I want to heal, let go of all the regret, shame and blame and be fully present for the people that I love in my life.