For a so-called social animal, the games we play with one another and lengths we’ll go to in order to blend in or at least avoid causing a ruckus, seem to be a lot like hard work, begging the question of just how easy being sociable is. Necessary, yes. Conducive to well-being, almost certainly, especially when utilised well. But easy? Well, often not.
There are a myriad of reasons for this, but the one that holds me – and I’m sure a great many more of you out there – back is anxiety. We can’t forget the politics that tear even the smallest of groups apart, with attempts to please everyone usually falling well wide of the mark. And then there’s infighting over more personal reasons, which often creates a more palpable tension than even the worst political discord can, for the one-on-one grudge is the potato blight of the interpersonal world. Pandering, though an offspring of politics, merits its own entry, and often with no ulterior motive in sight, people can be seen fawning merely to keep things congenial. But anxiety is the stumbling block at which nearly all of us at some point or another fall, and please allow me to explain why it often appears to me to be an insurmountable barrier scuppering opportunities I might otherwise take full advantage of.
Interacting holds a lot of fear for me. It didn’t seem to until secondary school, a not uncommon lifetime period for such problems to begin, but it preys upon my insecurities now, preceding me wherever I go. I’m party to this, of course, in that I allow anxiety to exert its powers over me, but perhaps another way of looking at it would be to say that I’m only party to it because I’m: overwhelmed by its formidable forces; terrified by its ability to anticipate worst case scenario; and perversely impressed by its cunning capacity to distort my perception and convince me that, even when worst case didn’t occur, things went very badly if I’m looking back, or are going very badly if I’m evaluating a situation on the fly. But let’s look at the build-up first, as it is here that the baseless beliefs take root.
Invites are great triggers. Delighted are many when they need to RSVP ASAP, but my grey matter can become saturated immediately with terror upon learning about an upcoming event that I’ll find it hard to worm my way out of. Take a month’s notice for a party, for example, and my free thinking time in the lead up to it suddenly disappears, being replaced swiftly and mercilessly with deeply fearful ruminations swinging back and forth between the what ifs and the how tos. Taking up residence inside an already embattled mind, crafty thought patterns infect the last traces of optimism with a sort of viral gloominess, their own brand of bitterly cynical negativity creeping, inching across a vulnerable mind, a mind that hardly needed to convinced to catastrophise in the first place. You see yourself idling at the back of the room near the eats, pretending to be genuinely hungry and thus justified in spending your time with your eyes on your plate rather than locking with other eyes. You can stretch that to a half hour at most, but small talk might be necessary and it could be harder to maneuver away from unfriendlies, of whom there are far more than the friendlies – those aware of your discomfort and thus easier to feel uncomfortable around – and so the trips to the bar become more frequent as you guzzle the uneasiness away. But you won’t be able to avoid everyone and you’ll end up having to explain yourself to too many unfriendlies for your liking, describing in great detail for them a rose-tinted view of the life that makes you so desperately uncomfortable in yourself. Your interest in their interest in you only serves to make you all the more uncomfortable, and what was mild paranoia snowballs into full-blown, conspiratorial suspicion, as you draw conclusions that wouldn’t be out of place in fan fiction based on Edward Snowden’s life after the revelations! (Although the reality is far worse for Mr. Snowden, but you see what I’m getting at).
Not to be confused with a standalone case of paranoia itself, which would be a few pages further on in the medical manuals; no, the paranoia of which I speak is the paranoia of doubt, self-esteem, and confidence, a paranoia more linked to self-evaluation and the futile activity of speculating what status might be assigned to you by these harsh judges you perceive your peers to be. Something often forgotten as we engage in this benchmarking and labelling, is the fact that the harshest judge we face is the one we see in the mirror. This draconian beast staring back shows about as much mercy to us as a ravenous wolf would a chicken, and so here, as you cast your eyes upon the looking glass in the days leading up to an event, you stare your way right up the anxiety ladder, skipping past steps 1 and 2 and scooching your way onto rungs 3 and 4 without ever having left the house.
Anticipation of what’s to come forms the thinking component of anxiety; the other components, the emotions of fear and dread themselves, we draw from our body’s reserves and ability to produce physiological responses which create the sense of unease and physical discomfort that accompanies palpitations and tightness of muscles. Whether the thinking component or the emotional one comes first is the subject of much debate in psychology, but whatever the argument, anxiety inserts itself into our daily lives and can debilitate severely a person’s capacity to thrive.
Moving on to the day of the event, I generally shift into something vaguely resembling the rabbit in the headlights. Unable to assess the event on its own merits, I instead load it with my preconceived notions, the ones I’ve been nursing since the invite popped up on my phone or social media account. Nourished by the weeks of negative projections, thriving on a diet of sour assumptions, my mindset in the hours leading up to the event is characterised by circularity of thought and I feel trapped, a prisoner in my own skin, destined to have an evening of humiliation and distress. The true nature of the bleakness that permeates my thoughts is hard to communicate accurately, but suffice is to say that it’s absolute and overpowering. Despite my efforts to pacify myself, the circular thoughts do their rounds and no sooner have I told myself that it’ll be fine, than my mind returns to its swampy origins, reminding me once again that I’m inadequate and will be outed as such immediately upon arrival at the impending function.
Which is odd, as I have a lot of confidence in my ability in some ways, and I hope to go on to have some success in my life. And all the odder, as I know deep down that there is no need to feel inadequate, no need to be beholden to anxiety, no need to perpetually torture myself in the lead up to social engagements. No need whatsoever, but such is the nature of the beast, for we can hardly expect mental health complaints to be rational all the time when they reside in the most irrational and inconsistent of all places: the human mind.
I know I’m not alone in facing this demon. They talk about 1 in 4 and other similar figures, but that could be 1 in 4 at any given time, meaning that at some point or another we’re all affected. Irrationality is at the root of a lot of it, and try as we might, our minds like to play devil’s advocate and outwit us with their crafty trickery.
Anxiety need not reign supreme, however, and I’m finding that it’ll fade into the background on occasions which would have been undoable for me previously. Not always, mind you, and I can’t count on it, but there’s been a significant improvement between now and when it really kicked in, which was several years ago. Who knows what the best course of action is, but a multidisciplinary approach might be best, whether that’s with counselling/psychotherapy, any of the various meditation techniques out there, your doctors and the medical model, or becoming a gym junkie and running off that pent up energy that can so easily turn on us.
I’ll avoid the trite cliches and just cite my own anecdotal evidence and say that my own situation has improved. An anxiety-free life is unattainable for just about everyone, but regaining the upper hand in this struggle isn’t just possible – it’s what you deserve.