Sunday, March 23, 2014

Painful Social Anxiety

Something really important to me is keeping commitments. Whether it be plans, promises, or devotion, I see someone's word as having intrinsic value and I want it honored.

Keeping my word was something I always expected from myself--if I committed to something, it meant I was going to do it. I often struggled with organization (I have pretty severe ADHD), but I was constantly working on it so I could do the things I said I would. I ended up being a big planner by age 16 and would usually organize things for my friends. Flaking became my biggest pet peeve because I had learned how to overcome it and figured others could too.
Goofy dogs really become your best friends
when you're trapped inside 24/7

But as my pain escalated, things changed. I slowly started being the person to drop out. I started missing meetings and letting down friends. As things got worse, I stopped planning activities and hosting events. I could not afford to have pain incapacitate me and ruin things for everyone. I was scared to carpool to places because I was nervous over being stranded or forcing someone to take me home. I canceled dates, abandoned group outings, turned into a cyclical hermit. People eventually stopped calling, even when I was feeling okay. And eventually I stopped making plans, because I never knew when pain or sickness would strike. The texts ceased, facebook messages drizzled down, and a lot of my previous friendships turned into waves-when-they-see-you-in-public.

When I got better at managing my symptoms and pain, things did not change overnight. Even though I was technically 'healthier' (i.e., medicated and more familiar with my limits), I had a ton of anxiety over being social. Because, to me, my word had become useless. I saw myself as someone completely unaccountable for her commitments and a let down to her friends. I did not want to inflict my flakiness on anyone so I could not bring myself to even risk the situation. For example, I used to even hate being invited to parties, because I felt like my possible absence would only reinforce my lack of dependability. It seems pretty egocentric now that I look back and think about it.

Regardless, my friends, no matter how much I loved and cared for them, became sources of stress. Because even if I made it to an outing, I would spend most of my time worried about me having to leave or feeling overwhelmed by my body. I worried about my symptoms making me act weird or people resenting me for being high maintenance. I worried about friends dropping me from the bother and resisted bonding with anyone.

Living life with social anxiety is not a good way to be though. Unless you're an extreme introvert (which I am not), friendships and socializing is a basic necessity. And icing every social interaction over with a layer of anxiety creates a lot of unhappy, stressful moments. I felt miserable.

So I set about overcome it. I made a list of all the different activities that have come to cause me anxiety over the years of my illness and ranked them in order of stress. And then I set about doing them. One by one. Moving on as I felt comfortable with each accomplishment. Re-learning how to enjoy socializing in the moment, and understanding that I can be sick and be social (not one or the other). I've learned that it's okay not to commit to something I don't feel comfortable with, but it's also okay to try and tailor things to better suit my situation. And to also realize that the value of my word does not completely hinge on ability to perfectly keep appointments. There are other ways for me to come through for my friends than just meeting up at a restaurant.

For those of you with social anxiety linked to your illness, here are some things I do:
  1. As I mentioned, I made a list of all the situations that were causing me anxiety, ranked them according to stress, and worked on them one by one. Repeat some until you feel ready to move on. Don't push yourself too hard. 
  2. Learned to be less secret about my illness. 
    • If things come up, I am appropriately honest. For example, I fainted while slack-lining with some friends a while back. One was unaware of my conditions and got really freaked out. I told him not to worry, that I have blood sugar issues and it only meant I needed a snack. When I couldn't move for several minutes at work once, a coworker became alarmed, so I explained to her I have nerve damage and it was acting up. By being honest with others, it eliminates the worry I used to have about them judging me for behaving the way I do and making assumptions. It also shows that I trust them and gives others a chance to be supportive or kind about it. 
  3. Plan things in advance.
    • When I make plans in advanced, it gives me a chance to structure my week in a way that will allow me to have the energy and resources to keep my plans. Recently I was asked to do something without plans that I felt uncomfortable with, and against my judgement i agreed to it. I ended up having to flake, extremely stressed, and sick all weekend. 
  4. Don't agree to something you don't feel comfortable with. 
    • This relates to 3--if you don't feel like you can meet the requirements you need to do the activity, change it. If it can't be changed, don't agree to it. There are of course reasonable requirements to do some things you aren't always comfortable with, and you want to grow, but don't force yourself into a bad situation. 
  5. Ask your friends for support.
    • Let your close friends/family know why you're struggling. Ask for support and understanding. Make it clear you miss them and want to be in a place mentally, and physically, where you can enjoy time with them. Explain how your illness causes this social anxiety. You will likely be surprised by the reception of your request. 
There are plenty of other resources online where you can find support for social anxiety. This post is more about how it relates to illness, so please understand it is not an exhaustive list of every option. Learn what triggers your anxiety and work on it. Since I done this, I've been much more social, made more friends, strengthened past relationships, and became happier with myself as a person.


[Edit: I've gotten some people asking me how to be there for a friend when pain/illness keeps you from 'being there'. So here are some things that I do to let my friends know I care about them and support them in my own way: I like sewing when I'm stuck at home and will make simple gifts for friends (heating pads and hand warmers are fun!). I cook for them when I feel well enough because it's extra thoughtful and lets them know I was thinking of them, even though we could not go out to eat together the week before. I write thoughtful notes when I miss important events--like a friend's birthday or wedding--about how excited I am for their good news and wish them lots of luck. If I know a friend is having a rough time, I message or call them and let them know I am willing and listening ear.  I use my negative experiences as a place to draw empathy from so my friends know that I am sincere when I comfort for them. I invite friends over for movies if I do not feel like I can make it to the theaters. A big factor in keeping my friendships strong is sharing with them--it shows them I trust them as friends and lets them know that it is nothing personal when I can't make it and that I don't want them to give up trying. People are not mind readers--sometimes newer friends will feel like they're being avoided or that you're making up excuses. You certainly do not have to share more than is comfortable to you, but it can lessen the load for you and include your friends in something meaningful. Most of all, I remember not to beat myself up for having to do things differently. Thanks for reading and please email or comment any other questions!]

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About The BedRiddenHead

I want to be happy. And this site is about that chance. How to strive to thrive in the body I've got and maybe turn my experiences into something worthwhile.

This site aims to help educate and reach out to people all over that struggle with pain or illness. To try and make something helpful. I work as a medical research writer, my background is in neuropsychology and biology, and I want to share what I learn in a way that is easy to understand. I am not a doctor. I'm definitely not your doctor. I am just some lady who wants to make someone's (anyone's) life a little bit better. Whether you have endometriosis, a chronic injury, a struggling friend, or just want to learn something new, I hope to make a place that has what you are looking for.

Thank you for stopping by, I wish you strength in your health, struggles, and happiness.