I have been dealing with social anxiety since around the time I was diagnosed with Bipolar. That’s 8 long years dealing with both Bipolar and social anxiety. I used to keep myself at arms-length from people for fear of being rejected, since my social anxiety causes weird behaviors. These can be misconstrued very easily if you don’t know me well. My initial solution to my social anxiety was never to get close to people. My thinking was that if I didn’t form close relationships with people, I would be safe from rejection. Also, anxiety wouldn’t take hold of me if I never went anywhere or stepped outside of my comfort zone (home). While this is true, it became an extremely lonely and isolated life filled with unhappiness. Basically, my social anxiety ruled my life.
There were quite a few occurrences that helped me overcome my social anxiety. First, I started a job working with a great group of non-judgmental people. My coworkers, and now people who I’m lucky to be able to call friends, accept me for who I am and do not measure my worth by my diagnosis. Second, I started teaching group fitness classes. This really helped me step out of my comfort zone because I was up in front of people, on a stage no less, guiding them in their workouts. It also helped me lose my fear of speaking in public, and allowed me to create wonderful connections with great people who I am also fortunate to call my friends. I really thought I had a handle on my social anxiety but this summer proved that to be wrong.
This summer was extremely hard for me and I became really depressed and extremely self-conscious. Unfortunately, a lot of my anxiety came back full strength, especially my social anxiety. Circumstances that happened over the summer increased my stress level so much that I could hardly handle a conversation with anyone. But I forced myself to socialize anyway, and it didn’t turn out so well for me. I ended up spending the next day in bed overthinking every single word that each person had said, too depressed to get up because I thought every word had a negative connotation. My anxiety became so bad that instead of enjoying my time out with friends and family, I used all my energy trying to hold myself together. I had to work extremely hard to keep myself from breaking down and crying or losing my temper and yelling.
As I was forcing myself to socialize, I came up with a solution to my anxiety: to redirect my thinking. Instead of getting sad and crying, I would think of something funny. When something made me angry, I would keep myself from yelling by thinking of a good memory. On the inside this all seems good, but when you suddenly start smiling when someone talks about something bad, it tends to look pretty creepy. Thankfully, I have surrounded myself with amazingly understanding people who I don’t have to explain my oddities to. They accept me just the way I am. I think this is one of the most important things that someone with a mental illness needs: understanding, supportive, empathetic, and non-judgmental people in their lives. These are the kinds of people you should surround yourself with, who will help you stay healthy.
In the end, my stress level and anxiety was reduced by seeing a counselor with whom I could talk about all my stressors in a safe place. It is very important to tackle the things that are causing you stress right away, so that it doesn’t snowball into a relapse.