|Avoidance is no longer an option!|
Opportunities are unfolding before me every step of the way since I opened myself up to the possibilities of living a normal life without putting social anxiety first in my life!
Now, I actually seek out opportunities to challenge myself in situations that make me uncomfortable. Avoidance is no longer an option for me! This is how to ultimately overcome the fear – to actively and continuously challenge yourself and not lapse back into avoidance patterns.
My overall goal is to raise awareness for Social Anxiety Disorder (also known as Social Phobia). I’d like to get information out to all school systems, in the workplace, and people in general within the community. I want everyone to be able recognize the symptoms and impacts of this disorder, whether it effects themselves or those around them.
Please contact me if you have any ideas about how to raise awareness. I’m also looking to build more support systems in the community.
View newspaper articles about
my experience with support groups:
Newspaper Article, August 2011
Newspaper Article, January 2012
Psychology Today: Shyness is Nice Blog
Shy Girl, Brave Woman
Joining a Support Group When You're Afraid to Speak
by Barbara Markway, Ph.D. 1/27/12 & 2/11/12
My Early Years and Growing Pains
I had always been a very shy child and extremely anxious around people I didn’t know well. I wasn’t exposed to many people or situations in general. Because a child accidentally stepped on my hand, I “quit” preschool! In kindergarten, I refused to speak to anyone and was placed in a class with only a few other children. Once my written work provided evidence of what I was capable of, I was placed in the larger classrooms, where I mostly refused to participate and dreaded being called upon even though I knew the answers.
In middle school, this dread and fear developed into an intense phobia of public speaking when I experienced my first panic attack up at the podium in front of the class. The initial panic attack and the ones to follow were intense: racing heart, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, a complete loss of control. That is when my vicious cycle of avoiding any kind of formal or informal speaking in public began. It consumed my every thought, which made it very difficult for me to interact with others. I was especially terrified of being called upon to read aloud; I would fake coughing fits to get out of the classroom.
Since I was so isolated and timid with only a couple of friends, I became an easy target for classmates to pick on me. Luckily, it wasn’t anything extreme like the bullying that goes on in schools today, but having social anxiety made it hurt that much more.
High School and College Years
Things finally began to improve in high school in regards to my social life, thanks to one very special friend that broke me out of my “shell”. However, I still avoided presentations to the extent of going to the guidance counselor’s office and requesting to be dropped down a level because I couldn’t handle the workload. I wouldn’t admit that it was the public speaking I was unable to deal with.
In my first psychology class in high school, I first heard about anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Once I saw the descriptions, I thought that maybe I wasn't the only one going through it; maybe I wasn’t so different than everyone else after all. I recently came across a paper that I had to write from that class. It was titled “Who Am I?” To read it as an adult at twice my age was a profound experience. When I was a teenager, I had no idea what was “wrong” with me. Why was I so afraid of people in general? Why was I so shy? Why did any kind of public speaking set me into an immediate panic attack? Despite the irony, the only thing I seemed certain of back then was that I knew that I wanted to help others when I got older! Another recollection I have from that psychology class was filling out the sentence completion task. The sentence was, “Someday I would like to _____.” My answer: to be fearless! While everyone else probably completed that statement with a dream, a goal, or a wish to win the lottery, my focus was on alleviating this life-consuming anxiety.
My social anxieties entirely influenced everything in the way I thought of myself. I termed it as an extreme shyness and an irrational fear of speaking in front of others. The fear of negatively being evaluated, judged, or criticized completely overwhelmed me in every situation. I knew then it was a big problem as it significantly interfered with my daily life.
In high school and throughout college I worked part time in a very low social contact environment where I was alone most of the time. I was able to interact normally most of the time because it consisted of speaking to one person at a time.
In college, I was very quiet in class and experienced a great deal of anxiety during class discussions and group work. I discovered my diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder through a National Anxiety Awareness Day at my college in my second year of school. A few months later, I enrolled in a group research study for social phobia at Yale Anxiety Disorders Research Clinic. It was my first experience with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which completely changed my life; it was the main reason I decided on my education and career in clinical psychological research shortly thereafter.
Although I made some improvement with my social interactions after participating in that group, I continued to spend much time trying to figure out which professors assigned presentations. My avoidance "strategy" was very time consuming, and ultimately caused a delay in my graduation twice, both in my undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Fortunately, my academic skills were strong, and I was highly motivated to do well, making me a dedicated student. As would be expected with an anxiety disorder profile of a very high achiever, failure was not an option for me. I got an A on the one presentation I could not back out of, and I felt I actually did a great job and hid my anxiety. What a relief; I thought I was cured... until I continued on with my avoidance pattern and shortly after, ended up right back where I started.
Welcome to the Real World
I excitedly began working at my first full time job during my last semester of undergraduate college. There were situations at work in which my social anxieties would creep up on me and temporarily knock me down from time to time. I would get very anxious: at staff meetings; being observed working (usually interaction with a client); eating lunch with co-workers; making small talk, especially with my supervisors; attending staff parties; making phone calls in general, even more so when others could hear me; and the list goes on. I avoided what I could and went through good and bad phases with the anxiety symptoms.
I managed to get promoted throughout the years. With increased responsibility in more of a leadership role came more interaction, socializing and overseeing others. Meanwhile I was going through my graduate program at school completely avoiding presentations all over again. There were a few major turning points (i.e., refusing to do a presentation at another worksite) that made me realize that I needed much more help as I realized how much social anxiety still continued to interfere with my life.
I had seen a few psychologists strictly for social anxiety once I was able to put a "name" on it. They didn’t have any experience with this disorder and were unable to help me. I finally found a place that specialized in anxiety disorders in 2006 that helped me tremendously, having a true understanding of social anxiety. I have learned much about myself and accepting that the social anxiety is a part of me, and that it actually brings out many great qualities. I now can accept myself, which I believe is one of the keys to overcoming this.
However, I knew I also needed a group environment to provide the support and structure that this disorder requires; it is crucial to making progress.
The techniques that I had learned in the CBT group at Yale gave me a new way of thinking and helped me through many tough times. It improved my quality of life, although my extreme fear of public speaking continued to limit my overall progress. It was also difficult for me to attend certain social events and interact with people at times. I was still very preoccupied with irrational thoughts of being negatively evaluated by people and put tons of pressure on myself although I hid it well for the most part.
After much searching and a few attempts with support groups, I found the right one for me. It’s a very structured group specifically for social anxiety that follows a strict program, click here: Social Anxiety Institute.
We use CBT and give one another support through discussions about how to apply the techniques as we share our experiences weekly. It helped me change my irrational thoughts even more and most importantly gave me a structured environment to practice behavioral activities.
I began in 2006 as a member, then co-facilitator, then onto solo facilitator, rarely missing a weekly meeting. There is ongoing progress in each person in our group over the years. We have all made incredible changes in our lives with our newfound courage. I enjoy being a part of watching others realize their full potential.
The reason that we feel that it is important to follow the same program is so that all the group members are listening to and practicing the same materials at the same time. It keeps everyone on the same page for discussion and activities. After going through many sessions repeating the same program, we have recently begun exploring new material we found on-line by Social Phobics Anonymous (SPA). Click here for more info: SPA
In 2009, I discovered a website called MeetUp.com. Here, I found another opportunity for outreach to others to overcome their social anxiety. This is a non structured group and a mixture of new and continuing members that meets 2-3 times per month. Each time that I meet someone new, I feel a sense of renewal as I witness their first support group experience. For more information, click here: MeetUp for Social Anxiety.
Why do I think a support group for social anxiety is necessary?
Through my experience, I have found that the group element is the most effective way to overcome social anxiety. I have made great progress over the years by facilitating support groups in which we participate in hands on exercises. I have encountered many amazing people. The inspiration and encouragement of the group process creates a deep bonding with others and produces amazing outcomes that would not be possible to achieve individually. Please click here to read about others’ experiences within the group environment: Group Members Feedback.
We learn how to recognize negative, irrational thoughts, and how to change them to better cope with social situations. We do many activities in the group to practice these skills at a gradual pace. Each person decides what their comfort level is and is never forced to participate in anything they are uncomfortable with.
Members come from various locations in CT, and we have a few members that commute from NY, RI, and NJ regularly.
Although I have made a lot of progress, I still struggle with it, and am very interested in hearing others experiences, and helping each other through it all.
What has helped me the most with my challenges is being involved in a very effective support group (above) in which we practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, most importantly with behavioral activities/exposures each and every week!
I share these experiences with members from the MeetUp group at our meetings.
Where Am I Now?
I still face my challenges from time to time, but with much less severity and without the feeling of “the world is coming to an end”! I’m able to put things into perspective and change my way of thinking when it becomes irrational instead of trying to flee a situation or endure it with a great deal of anxiety. I would still rate my social anxiety as being high when it comes to formal presentations and meetings in which I am required to speak in a structured format. I used to be very uncomfortable reading aloud, although I have made great progress with that through all the group activities and practice.
I have gained so much from the groups; the structure, focus, and repeated exposures have helped more than I could have ever imagined. There is such an element of hope, inspiration, and bonding within these groups.
I have recently come across some more amazing opportunities that have pushed me even further out of my comfort zone and have helped even more with my progress of overcoming social anxiety. I am now able to attend clubs (i.e., Toastmasters), classes, groups and workshops of interest. One that truly surprised me is group meditation classes. I thought there would be no way I’d be able to relax enough in a group; I ended up almost asleep and drooling J. When I try to meditate alone, I can’t let go enough, like I do in a group setting.
Overall, in every possible situation, the social anxiety used to hold me back from even attending, as I would worry, “Will I have to introduce myself?”, “Will I have to make small talk on the breaks?”, “Who will I have to eat lunch with?”, “What if people notice I’m nervous and think I’m strange?” and on and on! No more! If I want to go somewhere new and try it out, I go alone – I used to always need a “safety partner” to accompany me to any social event. I now have the courage to go myself with minimal anxiety walking into a room full of strangers and committing myself to hours in their company with no escape, no excuses. My needs and desires come first, before those of my social anxiety – goodbye!
Why would you choose me to guide you on this journey?
I offer the unique combination of my own personal experience overcoming this fear; facilitating support groups for social anxiety for many years in addition to: an education in Psychology; a professional background in the mental health field for 12 years; and most importantly, I have the passion, dedication, and motivation to guide others.
To view my professional background,
please click here.
What else helped me get to this point?
After attending an intense, 16 hour weekend workshop in 2010 directly addressing the fear of public speaking and performance anxiety, my entire mindset changed; I began opening myself to many more opportunities with much more confidence and motivation than ever before. For more information, please click here:
In The SpotLight.
As a result of this workshop, I have finally made a big step in the past year: I am able to give speeches at Toastmasters with significantly reduced anxiety. I have also taken on more of a leadership/officer role in Toastmasters and enjoy each meeting immensely!
Welcome to a Whole New World
I now live my life with a new outlook, confidence and energy that I never dreamed of. Through these groups and experiences, I have been meeting many wonderful people, forming new friendships, and finding like-minded people that want to help themselves and others overcome this anxiety. We want to share with you what we have learned on our journey! Please reach out and join us – your whole life will change like you could never imagine!
A Note of Gratitude
Without my significant other, Kurt, this website and my vision of reaching out to you would not be possible. Kurt set up this website and gave me all the tools to get everything going. Most importantly, his never ending support, encouragement and guidance (not to mention patience) has helped me become the person that I am today!