Little by Little: A tip on managing social anxiety

I used to have strong social anxiety. Talking to people, whether they are my friends or strangers, has been a difficult task. When I am in class, I’d often lose marks because I won’t speak up during recitations. Even simple tasks like talking to the cashier and sales clerk in stores are difficult for me.  On the few occasions where I am forced to speak,  my voice would squeak and I’d start sweating profusely. 

In one particular instance, I was required to deliver a speech in a meeting. The attendees were professors and some people from foreign countries. I was only informed hours before the meeting. Thus, I was too intimidated and I started overthinking about the what-ifs. Then, I started puking from fear. This is one of the worst ways my social anxiety manifests itself. When I am very nervous, I throw up the food that I ate. This happens frequently when I am forced to deliver a speech in front of a large audience. 

I told my supervisor about my social anxiety and asked him to appoint someone else. “I understand but if you want to manage your social anxiety, you should take a step little by little,” He said to me. He was right but despite his allying words, my anxiety didn’t subside. Minutes before the meeting, I puked again and this time I soiled my shirt so I had to change my clothes. 

During the meeting, I was too nervous and my speech was full of utterances. My voice was squeaky and some parts were redundant. But everyone was appreciative and most importantly, I felt more confident. My supervisor was right, if you take a step little by little, you can manage your social anxiety. Emboldened by that event, I started volunteering for roles that exposed me to anxiety-inducing situations. I signed up as a speaker during inter-organization meetings. I even dared to enlist in China-ASEAN Young Leaders Summit.

According to Psychiatric Times, this method is called exposure therapy. It encourages the systematic confrontation of feared stimuli, which can be external feared objects (in my case, public speaking) or internal (in my case, intrusive thoughts). Exposure therapy aims to reduce the person’s fearful reaction to the stimulus. When I was doing it, I didn’t know what it was but I knew that it was effective for me.

I recognize that mental health issues like my social anxiety are not a sign of weak character. I cannot snap out of any more than a person with diabetes can immediately recover from their condition. But I also recognize that social anxiety impedes some parts of my life, that’s why it’s important to take a step little by little to manage it.

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