Social Anxiety, The Physical Stuff
“I was fourteen when it started… The blushing. The first physical symptom of social anxiety.”
I was fourteen when it started… The blushing. The first physical symptom of social anxiety. I say first, but there were probably more. I just couldn’t hide this one.
Normally at school, if a teacher drew attention my way I’d freeze and be unable to speak, (classic Claire). However, on this occasion, when Mr Grant of Chemistry class called my name, I didn’t freeze, in fact, it was quite the opposite. I felt hot, uncomfortably hot. “Claire!” He boomed across the classroom. “Is ice made up of water or ice particles?” I knew the answer, but my jaw was wired shut and I felt an implosion somewhere deep inside my body. Think.. my own personal volcano! It started in my stomach, a rising tide of heat and within seconds the wave crashed across my face. My cheeks burned from the intensity and I cringed as it spread to my ears. What the f**k was happening?
“Oh, she’s gone red!” Mr Grant chirped, not in a cruel way, maybe he thought it would break the tension. Unfortunately, his words re-ignited the fuse and another scorching wave hit. The whole room was now staring at me, analysing every inch of my crimson face. I wanted to die.
To say that I was traumatised by this incident was an understatement. Most kids would’ve brushed it off as being a little embarrassing, one that probably wouldn’t happen again. I however obsessed about every detail. How I must’ve looked, what MrGrant must’ve thought, let alone my peers. Why did it happen? What would I do if it happened again? How could I make it stop? Naturally, I didn’t tell a soul and kept all of this to myself. The fewer people who knew that I was a freak, the better.
Knowing what I now know about anxiety, I despair at the plans this young girl made. My obsession and fears turned a single occurrence into a full-blown pandemic. ANY TIME that a person said my name (whether that be teacher or friend) I would blush. Blushing became my biggest torture, I was a slave to my cheeks.
This went on for about sixth months, during which I tried the following to combat it:
Holding my breath – I thought that starving my brain of oxygen would reduce the blood flow.
An elastic band – as in snapping it against my wrist if I thought I was about to blush. No, it didn’t work. Yes, it hurt.
Leaving class to use the toilet multiple times a lesson – to this day, I’m not sure how I passed any of the science exams, seeing as I spent most of my time elsewhere.
Using green concealer on my cheeks – green cancels out red supposedly. It also made me look like a witch!
It was only when it started to happen at home that my mum stepped in and asked if everything was ok. I broke down and explained what’d been happening. She took me to the doctors the next day, who immediately prescribed Propranolol (more on this later). God knows why he didn’t pick up on the bigger problem… maybe he just hoped it was puberty. As we all did.
Blushing is a physical symptom of social anxiety and also of panic disorder. Other symptoms can include:
Tremors (shaking hands)
Needing to urinate frequently
Full blown panic attacks (which I eventually worked my way up to)!
That’s quite the list, all of which I’ve experienced. Not pleasant.
How to deal with the physical symptoms
People often say to me “I just want the X symptom to stop, how can I do that?” I sympathise massively because I felt the same back in the early days. I thought if I could just get the blushing under control then everything would be ok. (Like how I thought blonde hair would make me popular and Xena Warrior Princess was a totally achievable career choice).
However, just as the blushing calmed down, the tremors and sweating started. Then came the constant nausea and stomach cramps.
Over the course of nine years, I went through every symptom on the list and more, until I had my infamous first panic attack and nervous breakdown.
Why? Why couldn’t I get them under control? Allow me to say this very clearly…. BECAUSE THE PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS ARE AN INDICATOR OF WHAT IS GOING ON INSIDE YOUR BRAIN!!
Like any illness or disorder, the external symptoms are a sign of the problem on the inside. Think chicken pox… the pox only appear when we’ve been infected for a while. Or a bad cold, all that snot and coughing is your body’s way of getting rid of the virus inside.
So before we move any further, it’s CRUCIAL that you accept the bigger picture. In fact, go and find a mirror (and some privacy), look yourself in the eye and say out loud “I’m not well. This is my body’s way of telling me there’s a problem. It’s trying to help me. I need to stop punishing it with ignorance and anger.”
How to deal with symptoms, part 2
Ok, now we’ve accepted the problem. Here are some helpful tips:
Go and see your doctor. Even if you’ve been before. Make another appointment and go into it with this new attitude. Write down your physical symptoms on a piece of paper… then write down your mental/emotional symptoms, such as “can’t stop worrying” or “always on edge.” Hand this to your doctor during the course of the appointment and explain that you’d like to deal with the underlying issue.
READ! As much as you can. Knowledge really is power in the fight against mental illness and the more that you know about your condition the better. You’d be surprised how empowering it is. Websites I would recommend include: The Anxiety Coach and MQ Mental Health and the books to read are A Beginners Guide to Being Mental, by Natasha Devon, The Anxiety Solution, by Chloe Brotheridge and How To Survive the End of the World, (When it’s in Your Head), by Aaron Gillies. Oh… & my book We’re All Mad Here by Claire Eastham.
Relax the brain – To get relief from the physical symptoms, we need to communicate that everything is ok and being dealt with. Most of the above symptoms are caused by the ‘fight or flight’ response, (click here for more info), the brain’s defense system that keeps us safe. To stop the symptoms we need to switch this off. How? Aromatherapy is good and cheap too. Find a scent that you find relaxing, Jasmine is good, so is Rose, Frankincense, and Ylang-ylang. Only use it when you’re feeling distressed. Put a little on a tissue or cover one nostril and sniff it straight from the bottle. While you’re doing this say (or think) “it’s ok, I’m safe.” In time the brain will start associating this scent with ‘safety.’ Other options are hypnotherapy and breathing exercises, (click HERE for my video).
Call them out with humour – 9/10 times trying to hide or suppress symptoms will only intensify them. You can’t force yourself to ‘not blush’ or sweat! In contrast, accepting them will cut their lifespan in half. If you feel self-conscious, humour is a great way to take the sting out. E.g. “Sorry I’m blushing, I think it’s stress, I’m burning up!” Or “Oh bugger, I think I had too much coffee this morning, my hands are shaking.” This approach also gives you more control.
Be aware of the thought cycle – I used to think, “I’m going to blush and humiliate myself!” The irony being I was embarrassed about being embarrassed, which in panic disorder terms is “fear of fear” or a “fear of the symptoms.” This leads to a vicious cycle that doesn’t go anywhere. To break the cycle, I would recommend using a CBT thought chart. To unearth the troubling thought and balance it. I won’t go into this now due to word count reasons, but do let me know if you’d like me to write about this exercise in more detail.
Exercise – Most of the physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by adrenaline (remember ‘fight or flight?’) Exercise is a great way to help it dissipate and leave the body.
Medication – Finally, medication such as Propranolol (a Beta Blocker) can help to significantly reduce physical symptoms by slowing the heart rate (in a safe way), and thereby limiting adrenaline. Be sure to discuss your options with your GP.
To date, my shaking hands are the most troublesome indicator of what I live with. I ignored my social anxiety for a decade and the tremor is a lasting reminder. It’s a deterrant, one that I take very seriously… to always respect my brain.
About The Author
Claire Eastham is a best-selling author, award-winning mental health blogger, campaigner and keynote speaker. She is an ambassador for Charity MQ and as is regularly asked to be an authoritative voice about anxiety on TV and Radio.