Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Esther van der Wal
I was in Santiago de Chile to interview students and experts for my master’s thesis, when my husband dropped the bomb: he wasn’t sure if he would still be happy with me in the long run.
I was 26 years old and heading straight towards becoming a divorced woman. On another continent, no less.
Needless to say, I was heartbroken.
On top of it all, I got robbed right before leaving Chile and lost pretty much every physical item of value: my apartment keys, cell phone, USB stick with personal documents on it – and my passport. Others had, effectively, succeeded in robbing my identity.
The interviews had lost all sense of priority, and when I traveled back to the Netherlands, our house no longer felt like a home.
After some lengthy and emotional discussions with my husband, we decided to go on a long break.
I instinctively knew there was only one place I wanted to spend that period.
So I bought an open-ended ticket to Chile.
When Social Anxiety Kicks In
When I got back to Santiago, I was an emotional train wreck. The feeling of loss was overwhelming. Most of the time I felt exhausted, empty, and cold.
Doing interviews on social and political participation didn’t go that well, either.
Going to Santiago’s major universities to talk to students became a nightmare.
Can you sense the irony?
It took me days to gather enough courage to leave the house and bring my questionnaire and old school tape recorder. Sometimes, I’d turn around and go back home when I was already halfway there.
I was no longer the spontaneous, smart and funny Dutch girl that my Chilean friends got to know before the break.
I had turned into a trembling, alienated social phobic who didn’t dare to walk up to anyone and ask them for five minutes of their time.
How Irrational Fears Can Hold You Down
I remember walking around on this beautiful campus, the sun shining on my bare white legs, watching small groups of students sit in the grass with a sandwich and a book. Some discussed social uprisings and gas prices, others studied for an exam or made out with their girlfriend.
All I felt was a deep, endlessly sad sense of not belonging.
On those days, I seriously wanted to run home, hide under the covers and not wake up until my fear had passed.
And I beat myself up over it: what could possibly be so hard about asking a fellow student a few general questions about politics and social participation?
But social anxiety, like any fear, isn’t rational. I sat down, put on my sunglasses to prevent anyone from accidentally looking me in the eye and cried in silence.
5 Clear Steps to Overcoming Social Anxiety
Recovery was a slow process. It took me several months to finish 18 interviews. On my best days, I managed to go out there and do two, ranging from five to twenty minutes.
With three steps forward and two steps back, I started seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
There are five steps that helped me overcome social anxiety. I’d love to share them with you.
1. Look After Yourself
When you’re alone and completely out of balance, the best place to start is base camp.
Get plenty of sleep at night. Get out of bed in the morning. Shower. Dress. Treat yourself to hearty, healthy food.
Maybe your mind isn’t working with you, but at least your body will remain healthy.
Try doing the things you used to enjoy, such as reading or taking a walk in the park. Going back to basics and doing normal things is tremendously important to keep you grounded.
Open up. Share your fears.
Now, this may seem very counter-intuitive when you’re in the middle of a choking sea of awfulness, but the only way out is to admit you’re terrified.
Try thinking of a friend or family member that you trust. Call them, go over to their place – do whatever is necessary to get to speak to them, and tell them exactly how you feel.
This is a difficult step to take, but once you try it, you’ll be surprised at how many people have experienced episodes like this.
If they care at all about you, they will listen and support you, even if they don’t completely understand your irrational fears.
If talking about your social anxiety in person is still a bridge too far, start with writing about it (if you’re not much of a writer, substitute “writing” for “painting”, “singing” or any other activity that lets you express your feelings directly to another person).
Write about your fears on your blog, send an e-mail to a friend or family member or chat with them. Do a shout-out on Twitter. Speak from the heart and be as honest as you possibly can.
Many people will relate to your words. You will see you’re not alone, and that will give you strength.
4. Get Angry
The emotions that come with fear can vary by the hour.
One minute you might feel very sad, the next minute you may become frustrated with your fruitless efforts, time-wasting and seeing how everybody else seems to find life so easy.
Use those moments of deep frustration and anger to give yourself a good old kick in the butt. Let that inner voice roar!
It might just be the little push you need to act, and once that’s over, you’ll feel relieved. At least you’ll have done something useful that day.
Yep, you’re reading this correctly.
If the opportunity arises and a friend asks you over for a barbecue (Chileans do this all the time) or salsa dancing night, do it. Even though you feel like utter crap: do it anyway.
Trust the person who invites you and try to forget about the things that keep you awake at night.
A change of environment, being with other people, possibly even dancing or playing a game will do you good.
Every step counts. Every smile you manage to get on your face is proof that you can do it.
Take the Long Way Home
To others, it might seem like a huge accomplishment: traveling to another continent, on your own, not knowing when you’ll return.
To me, it was a bare necessity.
I followed my instincts and I just knew going back to Chile was the only way. And I was right.
Over the course of the months, I slowly started feeling better about myself and my life. It wasn’t easy. But it was so worth it.
If you’re experiencing social anxiety like I was at the time, know that you’re not an idiot.
You are a very strong person for going through all these heavy emotions and you will succeed.
I promise you: in the end you will be able to live the life you want – without fear holding you back.
Esther van der Wal is a writer, editor and translator from the Netherlands. She is currently constructing ways to turn her heart’s desires into action. Follow her on Twitter to keep posted.
Nice article and great advice, thank you.
Esther van der Wal says
Thanks KT, glad you liked the post!
That’s such a great story Esther, thanks so much for sharing that. That’s no doubt a difficult task to overcome, a lot of people would still be suffering from it and asking themselves “why me?”
But you decided to overcome it, and became a stronger person because of it. You’re now able to help others going through similar experiences in their own lives. Social anxiety is a very common fear, I’m also an introvert and have a fear of starting up a conversation with a stranger.
Your story gave me no excuse what so ever to be afraid! Thanks for such a powerful article. 🙂
Esther van der Wal says
This is truly heartwarming. I’ve always known deep down that it would get to a moment where I could help and support others with my experiences. I’m incredibly grateful that I’m able to do that now! Thanks a lot for your kind words, Sean 🙂
This story is drawn from real life, thank you for sharing. Sincere and therefore so helpfull for anyone who recognizes the feelings. I think you do not necessarily have to be heartbroken because it applies to everybody who feels lost. A lot of people come to a point in life that they do not know where they are, which way to go and want to figure out where they belong. Some unfortunate people have to go through this several times in life. So even though you struggled your way out that does not mean you will never be in such a situation again. Therefore your advice is very usefull and well explained so you can save it as a hand-out. Because you will never know. Thank you!
Esther van der Wal says
Hi Caesilia! You’re right: many other circumstances can lead to experiencing fear, sometimes it isn’t even clear where those feelings come from. The search for what we should do with our lives is so common, I can hardly imagine there’s people who have never once asked themselves that question! We may keep soul searching until we die, who knows? Thank you for sharing your thoughts and all the best!
Tenis Oakley says
Really nice and strong history. Nice post too!
Esther van der Wal says
Great to hear! Sometimes our strenghts come, unexpectedly, from being open about our weaknesses.
Riley Harrison says
Well for me writing is very cathartic for me. Anger is trickier. I think anger begets anger and when you are angry you release undesirable quantities of chemical neurotransmitters that stay in the system for 8 or hours. I think cortisol is one.
Esther van der Wal says
Hi Riley, I hear what you’re saying. Too much anger can spiral down into more negative emotions that we definitely don’t need. I’m no expert on neurotransmitters, but fear, anger and sadness are very tiresome and energy-draining emotions.
For me, fear and feeling uncomfortable lead to apathy. After days of feeling totally drained and lethargic, I can get to a point where I get angry with myself, saying: “Look, this is just insane! How freakin’ hard can it be to go somewhere and talk to just two people?! I could be done with that in an hour, and now I’m spending days worrying over it and it still needs to get done. That’s so stupid!”
I need this personal kick in the butt to start acting, little by little, because if I don’t do anything at all, I’ll end up feeling even worse than I already did. That’s what’s behind this point on anger. You’re right in that it shouldn’t be overdone. Maybe for some people the opposite works: to be gentle with themselves and use a bonus system to help overcome social anxiety.
Thanks for commenting!
Hi Esther, thanks for the post and I think you’re on the right track. Maybe it even feels like it sometimes. 🙂
Just as a side note to point #1: right after my husband died I had no idea how to get through the day. I was exhausted, both emotionally and physically (from caring for him). Someone told me about the Basic Four: eating, drinking, sleeping, and sex. “Well, maybe sex won’t be happening right now,” he said with a smile, “but concentrate on the other three.” That’s where I started: just making sure, however difficult it was, that I had groceries in the house and didn’t start cooking too late (otherwise I’d skip it altogether and order pizza). Went to bed on time and napped when I had to. It was the beginning of my (long) recovery.
Esther van der Wal says
Hi Catrien, thanks for writing 🙂 I can’t even imagine what it’s like to lose your husband, it seems absolutely horrifying… and indeed a heavy trigger for anxiety and exhaustion 🙁
I think your friend was right with his advice and it’s also great that you managed to pour a little bit of humor into your situation. It’s good to read (on your own blog) that this post has helped you somewhat! Best of luck with all of the stuff that’s going on in your life.
As for me, I feel a thousand times better than I did in this difficult period in Chile. (Looking back, it might actually have been the most important year in my life.) I’m planning on blogging a lot more, so stay tuned 🙂