For most of my life, I’ve struggled in secret with social anxiety. Not shyness or self-consciousness – which we all feel at one time or another – I mean social anxiety disorder (SAD), a phobia of social interaction. More specifically, I have a chronic fear of blushing.
Lots of things can trigger my SAD. Here are 10 of the most my most common triggers, and some ideas on how to handle them if you’re also living with social anxiety.
The trigger: blushing uncontrollably in public. Because I have no control over the blush, I fear it happening. And because I fear it happening, it happens more.
What I do: the only way to escape this mental cycle is to break it. It isn’t easy, but with time, exposure, or some cognitive behavioural therapy, you can start to care less about what other people might think when you blush.
The trigger: having no response to the question I’ve heard thousands of times in my life, the one that makes every blusher squirm: “Why have you gone so red?”
What I do: it might feel counterintuitive, but you can own the blush and call it out yourself before someone else does. Or just be honest and tell the person interested in your blush that their question is making things worse.
The trigger: entering a room with people in it and suddenly becoming the centre of attention. I used to hover nervously outside closed doors, building up the courage to go in.
What I do: don’t hesitate and walk straight through the door. You won’t always become the centre of attention, even if your phobia tells you the opposite. The more you do it, the less you’ll think about it. The ultimate goal is not to think about it at all.
The trigger: entering a room with people in it, the air-con is off or the heating is turned up. The hot, stuffy air makes me feel more likely to blush and dials my anxiety up.
What I do: if it’s a meeting at work, I go to the room 30 minutes early and lower the air-con temperature. Or I open a window. Then sit in silence for a while, knowing the easiest way to enter a room is to be the first person there.
The trigger: standing up in a client presentation, at a party, at a wedding – and giving a speech. I usually turn into a red-faced, sweating, trembling nervous wreck.
What I do: exercise is a great way to burn up adrenaline and lower your blood pressure. It can decrease the physical signs of anxiety, like trembling and blushing. Consider going on a long run before a socially stressful event. It’s not a cure but it helps.
The trigger: sitting down at a table with a group of people to eat a meal together. I feel trapped and panicky because it’s harder to escape from the room if I need to.
What I do: again, strategic exercise is helpful. If you know when the meal is happening, have a workout right before it. And try to focus on what people are saying during the meal, instead of listening to the panicking voice in your head.
The trigger: this is a very personal one. But for some reason, as a kid, I refused to hold my pen properly at school. It means that now, as an adult, I hold my pen in a bunched-up fist.
What I do: “Is that seriously how you hold your pen?” is the inevitable question I get when most people see me write. All I can do is make a joke out of it. Or, in a similar way to owning a blush, call out the weird way I write before someone else can.
The trigger: meeting someone for the first time and watching them reach out for a handshake. My hands are sweaty at the best of times and I want to avoid this moment.
What I do: sometimes, I just have to be that guy who wipes his hand on his trousers before he shakes yours. Or I give a fist bump. Or I try to steer the conversation quickly past “hello” and get straight into things, hoping the handshake can be skipped.
The trigger: working in an environment where people are loud, busy and always in close proximity. Where co-workers come up and talk to me whenever they want to.
What I do: I leave my desk to get away from people. And I stop feeling bad about needing peace and stillness to get my work done. Sometimes I leave the building altogether to go and sit in a cafe. As long as the work gets delivered, this really shouldn’t matter.
The trigger: too many late nights. Maybe I’ve been working into the wee hours, maybe my kids are sick and they can’t sleep. Either way, my nerves are shredded.
What I do: the obvious answer is to prioritise good sleep. When I don’t sleep enough, I feel my social anxiety rising. I find it harder to talk to people, to suppress a blush, to even get on the train and go into work. Quality sleep is a pressure valve: it helps to bring me back down.
‘Redface: How I Learnt To Live With Social Anxiety’ by Russell Norris is published on 1st April 2021 by Canbury Press, priced £9.99, available online and from all good bookstores.
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