I find that the best way to not feel anxious about something is to trick yourself into thinking you’re not anxious. People often class me as an expressive — some prefer the denomination ‘extroverted’ — person. Many friends are often surprised to hear that as a child I was very closed off and quiet; most refuse to believe that I actually still like spending time by myself, and get a bigger rush out of cancelling plans than I do out of making them.
This affinity for solitude does not make me clinically depressed, miserable or peculiar — contrary to my numerous attempts of self-diagnosis. Only now, well into my second decade of hypochondria and doubt, am I beginning to accept this part of my personality and crucially that there’s nothing wrong with finding social interactions cumbersome. Learning to live with and control one’s own social anxiety is a skill most rare and precious — like taming a magical unicorn, few have mastered it, or at the very least openly talk about it with others. Today I hope, dear Reader, to dispel some myths about overcoming performance fears, or at the very least — encourage some discussion on the topic.
My own metamorphosis was brought about by a sharp change of circumstance — at age 11 I moved abroad by myself, to study and live in a completely different language, surrounded by people with a significantly different cultural upbringing to my own. After the first few months of shyness, teasing, and unbridled fear of all social interactions, it occurred to me that sacrifices had to be made in order to make allies in the playground. Life doesn’t just hand you happiness, and 11-year-olds don’t typically reach out to befriend the chubby, quiet, foreign girl — unless in possession of something sought-after like jelly shoes or enviable scoubidou-plaiting skills. It was 2004, I had just begun studying in a girls’ boarding school in a relatively unknown town in Buckinghamshire, UK, and I had a funny name and no jelly shoes. I also had no idea that a scoubidou was not a talking cartoon dog who solved mysteries. Someone mispronounced my name as ‘A Loner’ two weeks in, and I had no siblings or parents nearby to fight my battles — thus I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had to force myself to socialise, even if I didn’t like the vulnerability that came with it, as materialism of prepubescent girls could not be relied upon as a permanent base for friendship. After a tear-filled phone call with my mother back in Russia, I picked myself up and decided that I needed to re-evaluate the way I interacted with others. I would kill them with kindness, even if doing so made my stomach queasy. Having to converse in a foreign language also put a strain on things — most struggle to think up a good comeback in their native tongue — doing so in a foreign language was predictably much harder.
Fast forward to now, when 20-something me is applying for jobs in a market so overflowing with talented, young graduates that it is difficult to stand out and make a lasting impression. Now add to that a physical, stomach-turning, sweat-and-shaky-hands-inducing rigamortis that takes over the body during — and shortly prior to — important interviews and events involving public speaking. It’s frustrating to feel overqualified and able, and then fall so crushingly close to your destination, all because of the heavy monster perched on your shoulder called Anxiety. Although, if applying anthropomorphism correctly, the Anxiety Monster would be a more solid and weighty presence than just a perch on a shoulder. Good and Evil perch on shoulders — Anxiety buries itself under your skin like a leech and sucks the energy and life out of you slowly and determinedly.
Through trial and error I have found that the best way to avoid spiralling into a state of frenzied despair in front of an important event is to keep in mind and indubitably repeat to yourself the following:
- I am good enough to be doing this. If I weren’t [good enough] — I would not have gotten this far.
- I have been through worse. This pales in comparison to X (where X is an emotionally and/or physically difficult obstacle that you have overcome in your time of being a human on this planet. Everyone has an X — if you’re not sure what your X is, speak to a loved one and they will tell you’re being too humble. Invariably — as rudimentary beings prone to too much self-criticism — we always are).
- I am not only good enough, I am BETTER than this. Then list all or at a minimum three your achievements out loud. It may help you remind yourself that you’re not the human sack of garbage that you constantly tell yourself you are.
- I am my own worst critic. A phrase repeated many times over but for some reason never fully capable of convincing yourself. The grass always looks greener, other people always SEEM more in control and your achievements always seem lesser than. To YOU. Don’t become your own Regina George — be your own cheerleader instead.
- What’s the worst that could happen? Take time to think this through. Genuinely, without dramatising anything. You don’t do well — so what? We live on a round lump of rock with over 7 billion other human things. If the shame truly does cut as deep as you think it will, you never have to interact with this person again. No, you will not spontaneously self-combust, and no, the shame of saying something stupid will not actuallymake the people/person in front of your loathe every morsel of your being. Involuntary bodily functions will not end you — a close friend of mine vomited into her lap when meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. And yes, they are still happily together and she is actually very close with his parents. So if she can overcome that — you can overcome this.*
- I only have to live through this one minute at a time, meaning this minute, THIS VERY MINUTE THAT I’M FINDING SO DIFFICULT TO GET THROUGH — it won’t happen again. It’s a mere moment — not even a mark on the canvas of your life because, unlike physical marks that remain, you won’t have to experience this very moment ever again. This idea is borrowed from the columnist and general all-around bad-ass Caitlin Moran, originally addressed to teenage girls everywhere. Please note: this advice is so good that its relevance transcends all social divides and constructs — men, women, girls, boys, and sentient plant things with the ability to read. You are all worthy.
*this story is most definitely true, and there’s absolutely no way that I’m revealing any further details as my friend is a strong, independent woman who will kick my ass to Tuesday if I divulge her identity on the internet.
I find that actually looking at yourself when saying these affirmations out loud (or even thinking them) helps with the process. You believe the words more when they leave your lips, you actually see the confidence trickle in the longer you stand in front of the mirror. There are numerous things to be aware of that PHYSICALLY can curb impending panic if you spend some seconds to focus in on them. I may or may not be a scientist but I can definitively say that these actions will help you keep calm — tried and tested:
- Slow your breathing. Breathe in. Count three Mississippi’s. Breathe out another three Mississippi’s. Do this for at least 30 seconds. Your heart will still be racing like Usain Bolt on uppers but at least your brain will be getting enough oxygen and it will help keep your stomach knots at bay.
- Sit/stand up straight, shoulders back, chin up. Looking like a curly fry may be comforting, but when you find yourself in a high-pressured situation, physically resisting the urge to crawl away helps you to mentally keep fighting your gooey nerves. Besides, curly fries are delicious so you should definitely eat some to reward yourself for not being such a hot mess.
- Don’t wear hair ties or jewellery on your hands — keep these clear of distractions. This may be a controversial suggestion — I’ve seen many articles actually recommend sporting hair ties or elastic bands around wrists to combat compulsive anxious behaviour by providing a direct form of stress release. In my experience, if you starting pinging scrunchies or fiddling with rings during a presentation or interview, your audience will notice. You will notice your audience notice (obviously as, being an anxious person, you are warily watching for a reaction) and you will panic based on a self-deduced conclusion that you’ve messed up. Your brain will go into shut down and Anxiety will rise to the surface, biting and gnawing at your tender skin. Eliminate future possibility of social anxiety by acknowledging your own tendencies. This applies to the next point also.
- Wear comfortable clothing. If you are in a situation that calls for a specific dress code — adhere to the dress code. If in doubt — consult a family member or friend. Consider external factors that will affect outfit choices, like weather; setting; type of audience. After all those considerations have been met, for goodness’ sake PICK SOMETHING IN WHICH YOU ARE COMFORTABLE. Comfort gives you confidence. Don’t wear clothes that pinch or hang — don’t wear anything in which you would doubt yourself on a normal day, yet alone a predictably stressful one.
My list is not exhaustive, and nor does its publication mean that I am in command of my anxious, self-deprecating state enough to uphold these rules and tips at all times. I wrote this to help myself as much as I hope this may help you, dear Reader. I will refer to this the night, hour or minute before my own personal D-day. I will take a deep breath, I will lift up my chin and I will get shit done. I will place two fingers around the taut skin under which the bloodsucker continues to thrive, and I will squeeze the bastard out. Not today Anxiety Monster, not today.