Posted in Faith, Mental health

Coming to Terms with Social Anxiety

A few years ago, in a small group at my church, I was sharing prayer requests with two other ladies. I told them about my feelings of loneliness, and that I was often too afraid to approach people, which was a necessary step if I was going to make any friends.  One woman’s eyes got wide, and she said emphatically, “I know exactly what you mean!  I feel the same way.”  The other woman looked puzzled and asked us quite genuinely, “Why?  What are you afraid of?”

I learned two things from this exchange.  First, I wasn’t the only one – there were others who had the same problem.  And second, there were people who did not fear social situations at all, and in fact, found it difficult to understand why we would.

The second woman’s question was difficult for us to answer.  What were we afraid of?  Everything.  Nothing.  I don’t know.  Maybe it was, what others would think of us.  Or whether we would offend them.  Or that we didn’t know how to make conversation, or what to do if the situation got awkward.  All we knew for sure was: it was terrifying.  And debilitating.

Early Experiences

My first memory of being intensely socially anxious occurred in Grade 5.  On a beautiful spring day, it had been postulated that our class “may” go outside at some point and join an older grade for a game of football.  In my mind, there were several problems with this idea.  I was smaller than the other kids, and feared getting pummeled.  I had never played football before, didn’t know the rules, and would surely end up looking like a fool.  Being around older kids, especially in a competitive, sometimes aggressive situation like team sports, struck fear into every part of me.  And finally, I would surely be the last one picked for teams. Even if the picking were randomized, I was fairly certain no one would want me on theirs.  I would feel like the biggest loser in the world.

Thankfully, the proposed game of football never occurred, but its very possibility had ruined my entire day.  I remember sitting on my plastic school chair, heart pounding.  Slightly faint.  Slightly nauseous.  Willing the day to be over, and praying with all my might that we would just stay inside.

I could share other examples similar to these of the fears that I experienced during my school days.  Unstructured recess times when I didn’t know what to do or whom to hang out with. Confrontations with other children when I felt intimidated and afraid.  Now, as an adult, I believe there could have been some proactive measures taken to create a more positive social environment at my school.  My stress may not have been eliminated, but it could have been helped.

kids-1093758_640

Naming the Struggle

Although I do not claim my anxiety to be at the level of a disorder, I believe that there is value in naming the struggle for what it is.

Social anxiety.  I have social anxiety.

It has become cliche, but is true about so many things, that admitting you have a problem is the first step in becoming able to deal with it.  For many years, I didn’t recognize what I was experiencing.  Usually, I have had at least one or two friends.  I am a functioning member of society.  I have completed schooling, gotten jobs, and worked with some success as an entrepreneur.  Growing up, I often played piano in front of rooms full of people.  I can public speak – I’ve delivered several verbal presentations and even taught a class of university students.

However, there are many commonplace things that cause me undue fear:

  • Talking to salespeople about products that I am unfamiliar with (for me, these would be things like machinery, vehicles, soil and gravel, etc.).
  • Placing restaurant orders over the phone.
  • Eating meals with co-workers.
  • Asking clients for payment.
  • Approaching superiors at work.
  • Attending large parties or social events, especially where I have to dress up.
  • Visiting my husband’s places of work.
  • Trying to understand people with very strong accents.
  • Singing in front of others (a particularly challenging one, for someone who has chosen music therapy as a career!).
  • Having groups of people come into my home.

Again, there are other examples I could share.  But the simple act of admitting to myself that these situations make me anxious, has increased my ability to deal with them.  In doing so, I am acknowledging and validating my own feelings.  It is the difference between telling myself, “I feel fear, and that is ok,” versus “What is wrong with me??  I suck.”  (A pretty big difference, right?)

phone-5190645_640

Strategies to Cope

Yes, I’m socially anxious.  And if I own up to it, I can make a plan of how to survive the situation.  I can take a deep breath and say, “It’s ok.  I’m ok.”  I can develop thought patterns that prepare me to interact in a more relaxed way.  For example, I have come to think of other people as my “brothers and sisters.”  Not only is this biblically accurate, but it postures me to converse in a comfortable, familiar, and kind way, because I’m thinking of them as my siblings!

Other strategies that I have used include thinking ahead about things to say, or questions to ask a person, in case a conversation grows stagnant.  Allowing myself to become curious about another person is a great way to think of discussion topics.

When a get-together is planned at my house, I prepare as much food as I can in advance, and my husband helps with cooking on the day of, so I have less to think about while entertaining guests.

And perhaps, the most powerful step that I have taken to deal with my social anxiety, is striving to accept myself for who I am.  There are entire books that could be written on this topic (and probably have been), but for myself I will simply affirm: I am who I am, and who I am is perfectly fine.  One of the first times that I felt the Holy Spirit speak clearly to me, do you know what He said?

He said, “It’s ok to be you.”

Obviously, this was (and is) something that I needed to get into my bones.  Because my fears do not stem from disdain for others, or for being with them.  To the contrary!  I, like any other human being, long for genuine connections with others.  My fears are based in a (faulty, nagging, festering) belief that I will fall short.  That I will be found, sorely, lacking.

And whatever coping strategies I may learn, or use – it is only a restorative work of God, in the deepest part of my soul, that will ultimately bring me healing.

What kind of social situations, if any, cause you anxiety?  What’s your earliest memory of this?  Do you have pointers to share on how to cope?  I would love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.

Warm wishes,

Lisa

Posted in Faith, Mental health

Floods of Gratitude

Early in our marriage, my husband and I invested in an older camper trailer.  Although we thought we had inspected it well before we bought it, inexperience and oversight got the best of us when we forgot to peek beneath the welcome mat that was laid over the vinyl floor at the entrance.  When we got the camper home and happened to move the mat, we saw that the floor underneath it was black.  As it turns out, water had come in through a hole that had been made to attach an awning to the outside of the camper, and caused extensive damage.  Thankfully, my husband is very handy, but what ensued was a fairly involved process of dismantling and replacing the majority of the camper’s floor.

I remember being stressed about finances at that time.  Not only had we borrowed money to buy the camper, but our computer had recently broken down, and we needed to buy a new one.  My twenty-something year old brain swam with numbers, struggling to make sense of whether we could pay for it all.  I didn’t have a good sense of what things cost, or the value of money.  (Was that $1,000 – or, $10,000?)  Sure, I had done well in high school math classes, but real-life numbers were harder to comprehend.

shopping-879498_640

We lived in a century-old home, that we had purchased for cheap, in a rough neighborhood.  The roof leaked, and so did the basement.  When it rained, we ran for buckets, and towels, and wondered what kind of damage lurked behind the plaster and lath walls.

The bathroom of that home stank of urine, no matter how much I cleaned it.  I think it had permeated the walls, and the floors, somehow.  As I tried to scrub it clean, I wondered what the previous inhabitants had done in there for it to get so bad.  (Although I’m sure I would never actually want to know.)  And Joyce Meyer’s words would ring through my head.  She said to be grateful for the house you had, and clean it with joy – rather than complaining about everything you didn’t have.  To be thankful that you had a toilet to sit on every morning.

I learned to be thankful for that bathroom, but I also prayed for a better one.  A few years later, we would tear it down to the studs and have professionals come in to rebuild it from scratch.  We got right into the guts of that house, and in some ways it got right inside of us too.  I still have dreams about it.  In the end, the bathroom, and the entire home, was beautiful.  And although I don’t live there anymore, I’ve had very nice bathrooms ever since.  When I clean them, I’m always thankful that they smell good afterwards, and that they don’t forever smell of urine.

bathroom-1228427_640
This is not my bathroom – just a Pixabay photo.  But the slant in the roof reminds me of the bathroom in what used to be our century-old home.

Besides Joyce Meyer’s teachings, which just resonated with me during that season of life, I practiced a few other mantras to keep myself sane.  When our bicycles were stolen, I tried to think of it as a “community donation.”  When unexpected fees, tickets, and expenses drained our meager bank account, I reminded myself: “It’s all God’s money.”  His resources were unlimited, and our situation could turn on a dime at any moment.  We were where He wanted us.  We were learning.

And sure enough, as the years passed, we eventually moved into a time of plenty.  We bought land in the country.  We built a lovely home.  Generosity came easily, because we had a lot to spare.  I didn’t worry about the grocery budget, either.  Though I’ve never been a frivolous spender, I was able to go out and buy whatever we needed or wanted that month, and the money was there.

Nonetheless, as our monetary accounts grew, our spiritual and relational tanks were running dry.  Unexpectedly, change came again.  It was time to take care of what was most important.  The pendulum had swung from one extreme, almost all the way to the other – and now, was settling somewhere in the middle.

That is precisely where I find myself today.  Although we didn’t expect to leave our country home, after working so hard to get there, I would not go back to that life if I were given the option.

A couple of weeks ago, we bought a camper, for the second time in our lives.  This one is cheaper – a pop-up tent trailer.  I endeavored to be very wise about looking for water damage.  I searched every inch of that floor, felt the wood, opened every cupboard, inspected the plumbing, looked under every mattress, and had my sniffer on full duty to detect the smells of dampness.  But although I try, I’m just not very smart about these things.  Turns out, in pop-ups, it’s common for the roof to become water damaged.  (Why did I not think to check the roof?)  So this evening, as my husband was redoing some of the seals, he noticed that the boards at the front and back are water-logged, soft, and one of them is even growing mushrooms.  How gross is that?!

water damage
Someone else’s water damaged camper roof.  Ours looks similar.  (But with more mushrooms.)

As I laid in my bath tonight, pondering the situation, the following verses came to my mind:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:19-21

Isn’t it funny how quickly, a person can forget such a hard-won realization?  The memories of the early days came flooding back.  (No pun intended.)  The water-logged camper floor, the leaking roof and basement, the urine-soaked walls and floor.  My treasure isn’t here.  My heart isn’t here.  My heart is held by the Savior of my soul, who keeps my real treasures secure.

I didn’t know a leaky, damaged camper roof could become such a precious reminder.  Do I call the previous owners, complain, and ask them to help fund the repair, or do I call and thank them for the timely object lesson?

Realistically, I will not be calling them at all.  But I will be thanking God for the life that I have.  The toilet to sit on.  The leaky camper roof.  And, more importantly: my long-suffering, indelibly handy, husband.