By Tom Varallo
It started when I was 14. It was the first day of 9th grade and I was a Freshman in high school. I remember awkwardly sitting in homeroom surrounded by kids who I’ve known since kindergarten. They were all chatting in their little cliquey circles, reminiscing about summer vacation; but I wasn’t talking. I was in the corner of the room, alone, headphones blaring, searching through artists on my Walkman to look like I was doing something important.
I didn’t know why I felt this way. Some kids across the room glanced over at me from time to time. I knew them well, I had just talked to them last year, but now it felt weird, awkward, terrifying to look at them, to even think about saying something to them. Within these milliseconds of exchange, my self-conscious thoughts began to grow like sharp teeth to tear away at the armor of my confidence. So I looked down at my Walkman again.
This behavior went on for some time, until my peers didn’t look at me anymore. I wanted to talk to them, but I couldn’t. I felt invisible. It wasn’t until later I learned this fear, this nonsensical racing of the heart, this activation of my sympathetic nervous system had a name: social anxiety.
From that day to the end of high school, when I was called on in class or forced into groups my body temperature would turn from a cool, ocean breeze into a bubbling, molten rush of fiery hell. My forehead would start to perspire like I was grilling over hot coals in the scorching sun. My face turned from a lemon water ice into a cherry Kool-Aid in seconds.
It began to take over my life. I would come home everyday frustrated and hating myself because I remained one of the quiet ones in class. I was afraid to speak, so I was never heard. I stopped socializing with friends as much and unfortunately missed out on a lot of opportunities to meet other people. But I learned from friends and peers later on that they had no idea I struggled with this issue. They were probably too caught up in their own mind, dealing with their own personal issues of adolescence to notice the physical reactions I was having. Eventually, I started seeing a therapist and learned some techniques that have helped me to control my anxiety since then.
When I exercise, I find it greatly reduces the chance that I will have one of these episodes. This is because the sympathetic nervous system, aka the fight or flight response, is activated when you exercise; exercise increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, so after your body endures this kind of stress it needs to recover, and this is when the parasympathetic nervous system comes in. The parasympathetic nervous system combats the physical symptoms caused by stress, so you feel more relaxed throughout the day and therefor will be less likely to experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and sweating in an anxiety-induced situation.
This should be an obvious one. If your body stays cool and hydrated, there’s less of a chance you will be prone to blushing and sweating. A lot of times when I am stuck in a hot room, uncomfortable and cramped, I feel the heat of anxiety rising beneath my skin, ready to attack at any moment, but if I stay hydrated, my body stays cool and I tend to keep it at bay.
Whenever you feel anxious, notice how you are breathing; most likely you’re breathing abnormally or hardly at all. Immediately take long, deep breaths using your diaphragm. You know you’re breathing from your diaphragm when your belly expands with air and your chest does not rise. Practice doing this all the time until you naturally breath from your diaphragm (aka deep breathing) rather than from your chest (aka shallow breathing). This will allow the maximum amount of air to enter the lungs, your body will become more relaxed and you will be less prone to an anxiety attack.
Last but not least, I find that yoga and meditation tremendously helps with anxiety. Not only do they relax the body and mind, but they practice mindfulness, a great tool to use when feeling anxious. When you feel anxiety coming on, focus solely on the present, this will give your mind no choice but to forget that you are anxious. Pay attention to what people are saying around you, not what the voice in your head is saying. Observe your surroundings – the objects, the colors, the lighting, the sounds, the smells. Being in the present moment will train your mind to climb out of its shell and into the outside world.
You can do it too.
Remember that people naturally focus on themselves more than others. Truly they are too busy reflecting on their own issues and insecurities to study every square inch of you; there is just an irrational flaw in our psychological makeup that makes us think they are. When you feel anxiety coming on, aside from using the techniques I have mentioned, say to yourself, “I’m not in danger so there’s no reason for me to be anxious.” If you were able to describe your problem to a deer for example, it wouldn’t have the slightest idea why your sympathetic nervous system was activated when you were doing a speech in front of 50 people. Save the anxiety for when your life’s in danger and you need to run from a lion or a murderer.
Lastly, keep in mind that you are not alone; 40 million Americans have anxiety, making it the most common mental illness in the U.S. View everyone as belonging in the same tribe. We struggle with the same issues and do our best to work through them. Don’t let the illusions of anxiety stop you from achieving what you want in life. The more you put yourself in situations that provoke anxiety, the better you will get at controlling it and eventually eliminating it all together; it’s all a matter of commanding your mind to think and do what you want. I made anxiety my bitch, so can you.