Episode two: the social butterfly who lived in a cocoon

The dark glasses frame the big hair

in a way that fits the fashion scene
such that you wouldn’t notice when she walks by
just another one blocking out the sun’s gleam
if you were to jump into her head
you may get the biggest surprise
you’d find out the truth is that instead
she’s only bothered about hiding the nervousness in her eyes.

The noise my jeans make when my thighs touch. My half-red eye because I didn’t get enough sleep. The sound of my chewing. How my mouth moves when I’m eating. My stomach grumbling. The way my double-chin looks when I talk. All very mundane things which probably no one is paying attention too, but me. Yet they give me such discomfort that my mind convinces itself that they must be giving others discomfort too. 

Social anxiety often manifests as that ugly fear that you are the object of ridicule in the moment.

Few weeks ago my friends and I went for a full-body massage. While having the knots worked out of my tense muscles was a sorely-needed treat, I just couldn’t bring myself to ease up and get lost in the relaxing music and zen of the moment. All I could focus on was the muffled whispers and giggles of the two masseuses. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were laughing at me.

Now, while we’d probably all agree that this was very unprofessional behaviour on their part, what I’d like to draw attention to is one of the characteristics of anxiety that manifests itself in social settings: an acute sense of self-awareness which on the worst days makes me feel that the strangers I just walked past on the street who burst into laughter must be laughing at me for some reason. The truth is that random strangers are not committed in any way to picking me apart. And they probably didn’t even notice me. Rationally, I know this. However, getting this fact to translate into calmed nerves is another matter entirely.

Ironically, this kind of ‘obsession with self’ (which isn’t the lofty kind) comes with its own compounding guilt: I am imagining thoughts people may be thinking about me, finding it hard to stop this, and regretting the fact that this all centres around me- but still adjusting myself in that moment to what I think may be more socially acceptable. Also, I wish to channel all this energy into something more productive, so I beat myself up about failing to do so.

So for one hour while my body received pampering, my mind raced about thinking of what part of my body could be evoking laughter, or could be the butt of the joke (pun intended.)

Once again, this is the first time I document these experiences of mine. Thus my account should not be taken as a diagnostic, but rather as another forum for discussion about this issue. And it is indeed an issue for many: the fact sheet on social anxiety published by the Social Anxiety Association reveals that social phobia is the worldwide third largest mental health care problem.  However, while sufferers are often aware that their social fears are irrational, they can also become aware of those ‘triggers’ which can set them off.

The fact sheet highlights a ray of hope for those of us who can identify with any of the social anxiety symptoms: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT.) CBT has been shown to be effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders in a number of published studies.

Having gone through few months of roller-coaster emotions due to a family bereavement, and work stress, I am convinced that I need to start CBT, and probably need guidance and therapy through it. I’d strongly suggest to those who feel they need it too, to investigate where they can access help. Remember, you don’t have to suffer in silence or try to navigate choppy waters on your own, especially when help is available. 

Please drop any comments about your experiences with CBT.

The Social Anxiety Institute sites Dr. Richard Heimberg as being instrumental in CBT research. His recent research articles appear in the link provided.

Other helpful links:

Rise above it’ website run by Dr. Ayomide Adebayo, a psychiatrist passionate about providing information, motivation and hope to sufferers of various mental illnesses.

The South African depression and anxiety group

NHS website about social anxiety

This reflective piece is the second in a series penned by Furaha Asani on her mental health struggles.

Photographs by Mauwa Asani.

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