Could my social anxiety be excitement?
It has often been said that we live in anxious times. Picking up a newspaper, switching on the news or scrolling through social media will instantly give us reasons to worry. Many of the articles we read or images we see present stories that are outside our sphere of control. That is not to say we shouldn’t care, but we need to be realistic about what aspects of life we have direct influence over.
Whilst world events can be distressing it is impossible to ignore that we all experience stress and anxiety in our personal lives too. Many of us experience anxiety at the approach of a significant event and this can sometimes lead us to make excuses and cancel at the last minute. Whilst on the surface this might feel like a harmless fib, it might be worth considering how many lost opportunities this represents over time. For some of us this avoidance has been made worse by the recent pandemic, with time spent working alone at home and increased isolation.
It is important to stress here that I am not talking about recognised medical conditions such as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) but the nervous feelings that lead us to avoid potentially difficult situations. This is perhaps not unlike pre-performance nerves, which might present itself before an interview or a presentation, or as repeated social anxiety.
Here we might avoid social events, such as a wedding or a party. After the initial happiness at avoiding the event we dreaded, our sense of relief can be mixed with a feeling of regret. In turn this can affect how we view ourselves, leading to unhelpful negative ‘self-talk’ and as a result, making those situations even more difficult in the future.
From an evolutionary standpoint, anxiety is useful. It acts as a defence mechanism, protecting us from predators and the consequences of taking dangerous risks. It would be far from ideal to not experience any level of anxiety at some point in our lives. Whilst we no longer have to contend with sabre toothed tigers, a healthy dose of caution is still protective. It helps us to make choices every day, such as where and when to cross a busy road.
The recent pandemic has created varying levels of anxiety for many of us, and from within that anxious state we have interrupted the data presented to us and assigned a level of risk based on our individual situations. We can see as we look around us that not everybody views risk in the same way.
I find it interesting that whilst excitement gives us feelings of joy and happiness, and anxiety gives us feelings of dread or fear, the way we experience both bodily is generally the same. Both cause our heart rate to elevate, our breathing to speed up and even cause us to sweat. We all hold stress, anxiety, and excitement differently in our bodies. I personally feel cold and lightheaded, whilst others might feel their stomachs turn or limbs become weak. Learning to listen to what our bodies tell us about how we are feeling emotionally is a skill worth learning. It can be an invaluable tool in managing anxiety. This skill is possible for most of us to achieve, but it can take a little time and practice to gain new self-awareness.
When thinking about our anxiety it is useful to look at the evidence. Can you think of situations that you just could not avoid? How did things turn out? Was it as bad as you thought it would be? Or after an initial nervous feeling, did it turn out all right – perhaps you even enjoyed it?
It might be helpful to keep records – not long detailed diary entries (unless that is something you enjoy) but a few words describing your feelings in the run up to the dreaded event and how it actually was. You may soon find the anxiety is driven by anticipation. Consider, if someone asked you to take part in something socially at this very minute would the anxiety be there? Often spur of the moment things can be easier to handle and more fun than something planned for months in advance.
When did you last feel excited about anything? I’m guessing that might be a difficult question to answer. If you are experiencing regular or long-term feelings of anxiety the answer will probably be “I can’t remember ever feeling excited!” or “not for years!”. Perhaps when thinking back you will discover feelings of embarrassment. Perhaps when a younger, excitable version of yourself took a risk and made a fool of themselves in some public space. Perhaps your younger self experienced scorn or criticism? Considering these situations can be painful but it could be an important step in understanding the root of your anxiety. Your therapist will be about to help you overcome these painful emotions in a safe, controlled way.
When we consider that anxiety and excitement have similar roots in our brains it might be worth asking yourself “could I be excited?”. If you are not sure, you could try to reframe the situation to “I feel like this because I am excited” rather than “this situation makes me feel anxious”. Think about how that feels. Does the reframing help? If so, why not try it in a situation which feels difficult but largely unavoidable. A job interview that feels terrifying could be seen as “a fantastic opportunity”, a colleagues wedding you have been hoping to avoid “might be fun” and even a dreaded trip to the dentist could be reframed as a “positive step in self-care”.
Obviously, this approach will not work for everyone, will not be suitable in all situations and is far from a quick fix. It is important to start small and not force yourself into uncomfortable situations. You will of course initially feel a little outside your comfort zone, but you may surprise yourself.
It is possible to experience both anxiety and excitement simultaneously, so learn to listen to yourself before trying anything big. Remember, there is a huge difference between singing karaoke in front of a few friends and performing at Wembley arena! This approach takes equal measures of both courage and self-acceptance. If things do not go as you would wish, be kind to yourself and congratulate yourself for trying.
Working with an understanding and supportive therapist will help with this process. Talk to your therapist about your feelings around the event – considering the anticipation, the event itself and how you felt after. Did you feel tired? Awkward? Or energised? Did the experience remind you of previous experiences? Whilst talking about these feelings it may be possible to pinpoint specific experiences and their associated emotions in your past. This process can be a helpful way to understand yourself and to move forward, meaning that even difficult situations can be made valuable in some way.
As with everything in life, our ability often improves with insight and practice. Working with a counsellor can give you the opportunity to explore what you already ‘know’ from different angles. Understanding yourself more deeply and exploring your worries without judgement can lead to great self-discovery and in many instances an increase in self-compassion. If we allow ourselves to be human and make mistakes it is easier to take risks. Whilst this can be hard alone, a good therapist will support you if things don’t go to plan and will gently encourage you to move forward if you get stuck.