My Early Years Through College
I “quit” preschool! In kindergarten, I refused to speak to others or participate in class. I dreaded being called upon even though I often knew the answers. This continued on for a couple decades. In middle school, I experienced my first panic attack up at the podium: racing heart, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, a complete loss of control. My vicious cycle of avoiding any kind of formal or impromptu speaking began then.
My social anxiety began to improve in high school, thanks to one very special friend that broke me out of my “shell”. However, I still avoided presentations and requested to be dropped down an academic level falsely claiming I couldn’t handle the workload.
In college, you guessed it, I majored in Psychology. I discovered my diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder through a National Anxiety Awareness Day in my second year of college. A few months later, I enrolled in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) group research study for social phobia at Yale. This experience was life changing and my concentration in Research was established. Although I made some improvement after participating in that group, my avoidance “strategy” was very time consuming, and ultimately caused a delay in my graduation twice, both in my undergraduate and graduate degrees. As would be expected with an anxiety disorder profile of a very high achiever, failure was not an option for me. I got an A on the one presentation I could not back out of, and I felt I actually did a great job and hid my anxiety well. What a relief; I thought I was “cured” … until I continued on with my avoidance pattern and it caught up with me.
Welcome to the Real World
I would get very anxious at staff meetings/events, being observed working (usually interaction with a client), making/receiving phone calls, eating lunch with co-workers, making small talk, especially with my supervisors and the list goes on. Despite the anxiety, or maybe because of it, I worked very hard and managed to get promoted throughout the years. With the increased responsibility of a leadership role came more interaction, overseeing others and speaking. Meanwhile, I was going through my graduate program and completely avoiding presentations all over again, and at work, which caused me to seek help. It took much time and searching to find a place that specialized in anxiety disorders, particularly CBT. Through the process, I accepted that social anxiety is a part of me, and that it actually has many great qualities attributed to it (yes, I was also shocked upon my revelation of this ;).
In addition to a specialized therapist, I knew I also needed a group environment to provide support and structure, and to practice facing my fears in front of others.
I began as a member in 2006. Within a year, I was the co-facilitator, then solo facilitator, meeting each Saturday morning for 3 hours for 4-month sessions, guided by a program created by the Social Anxiety Institute.
This helped me change my irrational thoughts to positive ones and most importantly gave me a structured environment to practice behavioral activities (also known as exposures). We also kept each other motivated and accountable to work on our goals between meetings.
In 2009, I created a MeetUp group that meets to this day. It is primarily a non-structured group with a mixture of new and continuing members that meets 1-2 times per month. Each time a newcomer attends, I feel a sense of renewal as I witness their first support group experience. These meetings alternate between regular, discussion meetings and advanced “activity” meetings for behavioral exercises (exposures).
After attending an intense, 16-hour weekend workshop, Getting Over Stage Fright in 2010 directly addressing my fear of public speaking anxiety, my entire mindset changed. I immediately started giving speeches at Toastmasters (after being a member for 2 years prior without once giving a speech) and took on a leadership/officer role in my new club. This workshop is another example of me beginning as a participant, then advancing to a facilitator in 2017.
When I met my husband, I had barely just begun my journey of overcoming SAD. His support led me to a gradual progression of facing more social situations that terrified me. He also surprised me for my birthday years ago with a website domain for social anxiety. I would have never done that on my own.
For a couple years, I was unable to attend his work company’s parties, his professional wrestling matches, and many other fun occasions. I endured weeks of extreme anxiety leading up to these events, convinced I would end up locking myself in the bathroom.
Imagine that! A professional wrestler performing and speaking in front of thousands and a socially anxious woman as a couple. If this doesn’t give others with SAD hope in the dating scene, I don’t know what else would.
He has a knack for challenging me just enough, such as proposing to me in front of a large crowd at Disney World, followed by a 12-hour day wearing attention grabbing t-shirts, then a wedding on the beach in Mexico, which was the first time I used a microphone.
He continues to make custom made t-shirts every vacation (usually about my social anxiety) to have me stand out and talk to people. Hey, I’ll raise awareness for social anxiety any way that I can; I love it!
A Whole New World
I’m able to put things in perspective and keep my thought patterns rational instead of trying to avoid a situation or enduring it with a great deal of anxiety.
I’m constantly aware of the importance of maintaining my progress. It’s vital to my growth to continue meeting and (publicly) speaking with new people, nurturing the healing relationships with my fellow anxiety tribe, networking and keeping a healthy balance between socializing and solitude.
I now live my life with a new outlook, confidence and energy that I never dreamed of. My experiences have created the person that I am today – the ups and downs and everything in between has served a purpose. As challenging as it was, I wouldn’t change a thing, it’s a part of me.
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It makes it easier knowing that you really are NOT JUST the ONLY one out there. Thank you for Caring and Sharing about this condition.
Ironically for a person with SA, group therapy was the best form of support. Marla is uniquely qualified with both a psychology background and social anxiety.
Thank you so much Marla for all of your hard work! You are making a real difference in many people’s lives! I look forward to the future of the group.