“I’ll do it all.” Freshman year of college for me started with great expectations. Great expectations both from “college life” and myself. I had left home on a quest to make dozens of friends, to be a part of a tight-knit group, to be the outspoken, opinionated student that is in every professor’s good books. But in the process I had almost forgotten what it was like to live with social anxiety. Sitting at home for two years during the pandemic made me believe that I had almost gotten over my social anxiety. Turns out, I had not. Reality hit me as soon as I stepped foot on campus. And it hit me hard.
The thing about social anxiety is that it is not the quirky, trendy personality trait that a lot of people take it to be. It isn’t just feeling shy and getting nervous before delivering speeches (although that would actually be so much easier). For most people it is much more, it affects every aspect of our lives, disrupts day-to-day functioning. Social anxiety is about missed opportunities. It is about wasted potential. It is about regret. Shame. Embarrassment.
What do you do when you are absolutely convinced that everyone hates you? You build a fortress around yourself, push out the people you love so dearly. You shut the gates so tight that no one can get it. Not even friends. Because what if they think you are weird and boring? What if they just pretend to like you? What if you are just a burden to them? What if their hearts are secretly filled with malice and hatred for you? As the whirlwind of what-ifs took over my thoughts, I created miles of distance between me and the people I wanted to call my friends. I did make friends, don’t get me wrong, but my inhibitions prevented me from forming meaningful bonds. Again, what else do you do when you are absolutely convinced that everyone hates you?
Self-sabotage didn’t just stop there for me. Because crowded places were so over-stimulating and overwhelming, I started skipping meals frequently just to avoid the dining hall crowd. Whenever I did go, I could feel scores of eyes on me- judging my body language, judging at the way I eat, judging how much I eat. I would always ask my friends if other people would be joining us for meals because eating with unfamiliar people would mean feeling too anxious to eat, losing my appetite, wanting to escape. Then there was the constant fear of embarrassing myself. What if I spill something accidentally? What if they think I am stupid for not speaking much? What if I have a panic attack in front of all these people? What if…
Most of the times my anxiety would only be lying to me. But sometimes it would prove right. Sometimes when I had no option but to be in a large group, people would see me, clearly very uncomfortable, and would still say things like, “Are you always this quiet?” “Don’t you get to voice your thoughts at home?” “You look like a helpless kitten.” And the discomfort would only spiral out of control.
Friendships weren’t the only thing I struggled with. My anxiety had a huge impact on my academics as well. The first online semester flew by almost seamlessly. Excellent grades, good class participation (although with a little hesitation), overall fulfilling and focused. However the offline classes in the second semester were nothing short of a nightmare. I would focus so much on not appearing anxious that I couldn’t give my full attention to what was being taught. Being an International Relations major, participating in class discussions is extremely important. But it became impossible for me to speak up in class even though I’d have a lot to say. “What if I say something stupid?” “What if I stutter?” “What if my classmates laugh at me?” I remember breaking down in front of one of my professors after a class discussion about feminist theory of IR. Despite being passionate about the topic, I couldn’t make even one intervention. The regret of missing out on such an opportunity was unbearable.
Academic validation is one thing that I have craved all my life. But without knowing, chasing after marks and praises throughout school just for momentary glory became an unhealthy obsession for me. “Your response papers demonstrate quite a reflective mind, Naisha. So please come out of your hesitations and start speaking up in class discussions. You have huge potential.” So now when I get feedbacks like these, I can’t help but feel like my anxiety is holding me back, like I am wasting my potential. The irony is, even when I do get academic validation, I have a hard time accepting it. So when I got to know that I made it to the dean’s list, I only felt shame. “There are so many more deserving, smarter people than me, I feel so embarrassed.” That’s what I told my mom when I shared the news with her. What else do you do when you are absolutely convinced that you’re the stupidest person in the room?
Even in informal or semiformal settings like club meetings, anxiety would keep me from participating. I left the debate club after the very first meeting where I completely froze during the practice debate exercise. My hands went numb and my legs shook and my throat dried up and my breath couldn’t escape my lungs and my eyes stung with held back tears. I just could not do it. Every activity I tried to do, anxiety would ruin for me. Such feelings are obviously not normal. Then I did what was long overdue- I started going to blue circle every week for therapy. I felt an immense amount of shame and guilt. But still, I went. It wasn’t easy. I would spend half the time panicking about what to say. I would have a difficult time with processing my thoughts. I would feel like my problems were too small to even go to therapy for. And even though I would have terrible therapy hangovers and would feel physically and emotionally drained after each session, therapy did prove to be a safe space for me. With less than two months of therapy, one can’t really show much progress. But it should always be okay to start somewhere, right?
It feels reassuring to see a lot of acceptance and open mindedness about mental health issues. Whenever I have opened up about my anxiety to my close friends, I have only found support. It’s good to know that we have progressed a lot in terms of breaking the stigma. But there is still a long, long way to go. Before writing this article, I had to get a thumbs-up from my therapist and at least three friends. “Would it be okay to write about such a vulnerable topic?” “What if people start pitying me or treating me differently after reading the article?” Even though I had to stop writing several times just because the process itself was very anxiety-inducing, I wrote this article anyway. I wrote it in hope that people who are going through the same would not feel as alone. I wrote this because someone has to start the conversation. And if that someone has to be me, I’ll do it, even if it takes every ounce of my courage.