I was only eight when my parents took me to a shrink. It took him shy of half an hour to diagnose me with social anxiety and start what would be over a decade of treatments. But, even with all the sessions talking, weeks journaling, and special breathing techniques, I felt no better than before. Merely raising my hand in class caused a near-panic attack, and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest every time I was called on. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I learned the truth about social anxiety, and my whole life changed from there.
You see, all the therapy in the world was only making me feel better about having anxiety and wasn’t actually attacking it at the source. There’s only two reasons people feel social anxiety—they fear being disliked or having their schema shattered. For the non-psychologists in the room, a schema is your self-image, and if you think you’re smart then saying something dumb wouldn’t align with that image you’ve developed, would it? Sometimes, these fears are innate and other times they’ve slowly been realized through experience. For me, it was the latter of the two.
As an overweight, introverted kid, I was an easy target for bullies. The result was a double punch to my social and physical self-esteem. Whether you were bullied, publicly shamed, or have always felt anxiety, I’ve got some great news for you—there’s a way to get rid of it for good. I was 20 years old when I figured it out by sheer coincidence, and had it not been for my abnormal psychology class, it would have never happened. We were learning about the serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, when the professor said something that caught my ear.
She said Dahmer was actually very anxious, which was in sharp contrast with other serial killers, since most are completely psychopathic. However, to beat his anxiety, he’d find ways to dehumanize his victims by viewing them as tools rather than people. I thought that concept was very interesting, and while his motivations were very different than mine, I wondered what would happen if I imagined people as being unreal or non-human. Would it lower my anxiety like it did his?
To my surprise, it actually did work, and the rush of talking to people without any anxiety in the world made me the most extraverted person you’d ever meet. The best part? After doing this for just a week or two I started realizing people weren’t so scary anymore. My anxiety had…vanished, and even without that ‘technique’ I stopped feeling anxious around any number of people. Just a month later I confidently gave a public speech to more than two hundred fellow students—something I never thought myself capable of.
Along the way, the journey made me realize that psyching yourself up doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you need to psych the situation down, and it will devalue any emotional stock you had invested in it. In retrospect, it would have been a brilliant idea to try out an anti-anxiety OTC medicine or prescription from a psychiatrist before I had made my discovery. Some L-theanine, CBD oil, or benzodiazepine would have gone a long way, but you live, and you learn.
If you’re crippled with anxiety right now, seriously think about what I’ve said. Rather than thinking ‘I’m the shit, everybody loves me, I’m going to do great!’ try thinking ‘none of this really matters, these people aren’t going to have any impact on my life, and I don’t really care about their opinion of me’ and see where that takes you. This isn’t something you have to do forever—only until you recognize that there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place. Using psychology to solve your mental health issues is the most powerful tool you have, and if I could get over my anxiety you can get over yours too.