How I’m Reclaiming My Life From Crippling Social Anxiety
It all dawned on me this past semester, standing in front of the projection screen, teaching my students the difference between adjectives and adverbs. I was speaking a little louder than normal, flailing my arms in illustration, trying to drive my points home. Even the most introverted of my students were engaged in that moment, shouting answers back at me, laughing, taking notes.
I thought, I never would have thought I’d be doing this.
Not because I wasn’t qualified to teach (although for a long period of time I believed as much), but because from about the sixth grade until the age of 23, I battled with social anxiety.
The first time I remember feeling so anxious was during lunch time in the sixth grade. I stood at the entrance to the cafeteria, watching other students milling around, and I couldn’t move. My pulse was out of control to the point that I could feel my heart beating in my neck. My palms were sweaty and I felt as if I were going to cry. I pivoted on the balls of my feet and ate lunch in the bathroom. From that moment, for the next thirteen years or so, I would struggle with crippling, daily anxiety. Some days to the point of physical illness. To eat breakfast was often a personal accomplishment.
I feared that my family – a very no-nonsense one – would think I was faking or crazy. I had no recourse, and I have noticed this is the case for many black women. Family is often the cause of lingering, debilitating anxiety. We feel we can’t verbalize the rollercoaster of our mental and physical state without being criticized or mocked. We’re expected to suck it up and move on. Discussing feelings is considered weakness. We are shamed into silence for something that is not our fault. I was tired of carrying around shame, so here is what I did:
1. I used college to break out of my comfort zone. I was used to being too afraid to do anything, including engaging with others. I knew that if this was going to change anywhere, college was the place. I joined clubs and organizations with missions that interested me and I pushed myself to engage. This was EXTREMELY difficult! Some days I would rush back to my dorm room on the verge of tears just from being in the presence of so many people. Difficult, though it was, it was also a huge stepping stone.
2. I picked up my journal. I knew I was not comfortable enough to share my deepest insecurities, thoughts and feelings with anyone too soon. I also knew that if I kept everything bottled up I would implode. I decided to journal every thought. Every prayer, dream, goal, inhibition, fear, and misunderstanding went into my journal. I unearthed a world of unknown hurts from being bullied in the sixth grade and other childhood traumas that had taken a huge psychological toll. Each entry felt like a huge sigh of relief and a slow but sure release of pressure.
3. I sought out confidants. Trust was extremely difficult for me. I knew I needed individuals who cared for and would cover me during this process of healing and growing. So I watched for the people in my life who displayed exemplary character. Who chose not to gossip? Who maintained integrity? Who was compassionate? Once trustworthy people were revealed to me I could feel my mood change day-to-day, month-to-month. I wasn’t ill when I awoke in the mornings. Social situations were less daunting.
4. I affirmed myself. As a Christian and a person who believes that life and death is in the power of the tongue, I started checking myself. Every time I began to speak or think negatively about myself I would replace that thought with something positive – often a quote, affirmation or bible verse. I realized that I couldn’t use others as my crutch. I had to make sure I was telling myself good things…even in the moments when I didn’t believe them.
It’s been five years since I began this self-work and I’m nothing but grateful, empowered and humbled by the experience. It’s not always easy – even today – but it has been worth every tear, journal entry, Mary Jane-esque affirmation and prayer. The past doesn’t hold me and the future looks promising.