I’ve had low-key social anxiety for as long as I can remember. I say "low-key" because, like many people with social anxiety, I have gone to great lengths to avoid putting myself into situations that cause me anxiety. For instance, I was the student who opted to write a 20-page paper rather than give a 15-minute presentation. Later, as a college instructor, I chose to teach online as much as possible and over-prepared for every in-person class. At parties, I either hosted or assisted the hosts, staying too busy to feel anxious.
Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, affects around 15 million Americans, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. We may feel intense anxiety or fear of being judged or rejected in a social or performance situation, and it can be distressing to the point of avoidance. When avoidance isn’t an option, physical symptoms can occur, including nausea, sweating, diarrhea and rapid heart rate.
Fortunately, my methods of avoidance worked well to alleviate situations that would make me anxious.
But then I had kids.
While it was fairly easy to avoid anxiety-inducing social situations when they were babies and toddlers, now that they’re older and making their own friends, things have gotten more complicated. I want my kids to be happy, have friends and experience life. I also don’t want to hyperventilate and lose my lunch every time I’m tasked with escorting them to a new social activity.
Here’s how I’m managing my social anxiety so far:
1. Positive visualization
Instead of stressing over what might go wrong, I give myself positive images to focus on while telling myself, "Everything will be OK." When that isn’t enough, I tell myself, "It’ll be over in X hours and you can be alone." I’m not ashamed to admit I bribe myself with the promise of solitude in order to get through the situation.
Naming the problem goes a long way toward minimizing the symptoms.
2. Buddy up
Whenever possible, I find a friend to meet up with before going to a social event with my kids. Having someone I trust gives me a much-needed buffer. It can also provide a reality check when I feel like I’m about to jump out of my skin.
3. Prepare in advance
If I know I’m meeting new people at a social event, I try to reach out beforehand—either via text, email or social media—and introduce myself or start a conversation. It helps to connect at a distance before I need to interact in person. Sometimes, I’ll even say something before we meet about being shy because naming the problem goes a long way toward minimizing the symptoms.
4. Focus on the kids
When I find myself talking too loud, too fast or, worse, not talking at all, I shift my focus from my own anxiety to what’s important in the moment: the kids (that is, my kids and the other kids who are there). Making a mental shift from "woman with social anxiety" to "mom with kids" helps me relax a bit. Putting my kids first lets me get out of my head and away from my anxiety for a little while.
5. Don't be a martyr
Yes, I want my kids to be happy. Yes, I want to be there for them in every way possible. But sometimes it’s just too much and I can’t talk myself through the social anxiety. In situations like that, there are two directions I can go: Either bail entirely and pass the torch to my husband (who, thankfully, has no problem socializing) or take medication prescribed by my doctor. While I had never thought to mention my social anxiety to my doctor, a discussion about post-surgical anxiety I was experiencing led to an option for my social anxiety. Having a prescription on hand and "just in case" sometimes relieves my social anxiety without me even needing to take it, but it’s there when I need it.
6. Keep fighting
As my kids get older, I will keep adding to my arsenal of tips and tricks to fight my social anxiety so that it has minimal impact on our family. Watching my kids experience life and have fun isn’t the antidote to my social anxiety, but it’s close. And, sometimes, I'm able to muffle my anxiety long enough to have some fun myself.