It’s a process, a journey to change your ways of thinking and behaving, and it can be done.
There is hope - many others out there going through the same thing you are!
My Early Years and Growing Pains
I was 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 often knew the answers.
In middle school, this 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. I also “forgot” my gym clothes on a regular basis. It was difficult to exert physical force in sports while having a semi panic attack at the same time!
Since I was isolated and timid, having only a couple of friends, I became an easy target for classmates to pick on me. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything extreme like the bullying that goes on in schools today, but having social anxiety made it that much more difficult.
High School and College Years
My social anxiety began to improve in high school, 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 an academic level falsely claiming I couldn’t handle the workload.
In my first psychology class in high school, I first heard about anxiety disorders and panic attacks (social anxiety had little awareness then and wasn’t listed as an anxiety disorder). 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 written for that class 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! I gave a speech about this paper in Toastmasters in 2016.
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! This response was based solely on this fear since it completely took over my life in every way imaginable. 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. The fear of negatively being evaluated, judged, or criticized completely overwhelmed me in every situation.
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. 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 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. However, I made the dean's list just about every semester.
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, the panic attacks continued on forcefully as ever.
Aside from academics, 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 and I actually did enjoy speaking to people.
Looking back, I realize I was a socially anxious EXTROVERT!
And I still am, well minus the severity of feeling socially anxious.
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 and I would avoid what I could. 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.
Despite the anxiety, or maybe because of it, I worked very hard and managed to get promoted throughout the years. With the increased responsibility in more of a leadership role came more interaction, overseeing others and socializing. Meanwhile, I was going through my graduate program and completely avoiding presentations all over again. There were a few major turning points (e.g., refusing to do a presentation at another worksite) that made me realize that I needed much more help than I thought.
I had seen a few psychologists strictly for social anxiety once I was able to put a "name" on it while I was an undergrad in college. They didn’t have any experience with this disorder and were unable to provide the help I needed. I finally found a place that specialized in anxiety disorders in 2006 that helped me tremendously, having a true understanding of social anxiety and specializing in CBT.
I learned much about myself and accepting that the social anxiety is a part of me, and that it actually has many great qualities attributed to it (yes, I was also shocked upon my revelation of this). Now, I accept myself fully, which is a key component to managing anxiety.
However, I knew I also needed a group environment to provide support and structure; it is crucial to making progress.
After much searching and a few attempts with support groups, I found the right one for me. It was a structured group specifically for social anxiety that follows a strict program created by the Social Anxiety Institute.
In this group, we learned more about CBT, while supporting others through discussions, sharing our experiences weekly, and applying the techniques in our daily life. It helped me change my irrational thoughts to positive ones and most importantly gave me a structured environment to practice behavioral activities (also known as exposures).
I began as a member in 2006, within a year, I was the co-facilitator, then became the solo facilitator, meeting each week for 3 hours. There is ongoing progress with this group as it has been running for 10 years with new and continuing members. The same members attend each week for 3-4 month sessions, which greatly helps with comfort levels and accountability. We all made incredible changes in our lives with our newfound courage. I especially enjoyed watching others grow and realize their full potential. For a couple years, members would travel from other states: NY, RI, and NJ. This is evidence of the need for more social anxiety support groups. In 2013, I had to reduce my involvement with the group and one of its original members has been facilitating it since.
For more information, view our opportunities and support page.
In 2009, I discovered the website MeetUp. Here, I found another opportunity to outreach to others. This is primarily a non-structured group and a mixture of new and continuing members that meets twice per month. These meetings do not consist of the same members and it’s always exciting to see who attends, sometimes members from years ago return. Each time that I meet someone new, I feel a sense of renewal as I witness their first support group experience. The meetings alternate between regular, discussion meetings and “activity” meetings in which we do behavioral exercises (exposures) and sometimes play games, which is lots of fun. Feel free to join us!
Why Do I Think a Support Group or Group Environment is Necessary?
I have made great progress over the years by facilitating AND participating in these groups. The exchange of feedback is helpful because we think we are so visibly anxious as we feel it intensely internally; we are often surprised to hear that these symptoms are not present while we are speaking. We have all become such good “hiders” of the anxiety and have fooled people for years.
The inspiration and encouragement of the group process creates a deep bonding and results in amazing outcomes that would not be possible to achieve individually. Please read about others’ experiences within the group environment: Testimonials and reviews of the Meetup group.
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.
What Else Helped Me?
Personal development books, podcasts, etc., others’ support, learning techniques, doing exposures, lots of patience and practice, then repeat and repeat again!
After attending an intense, 16-hour weekend workshop, Getting Over Stage Fright in 2010 directly addressing my 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.
As a result of this workshop, I was immediately able to start giving speeches at Toastmasters (after being a member for 2 years prior without once giving a speech) with significantly reduced anxiety. In addition, I took on more of a leadership/officer role in Toastmasters and enjoy each meeting immensely!
Also, I now venture out to other Meetup groups or events that I find interesting and challenge me. One recently that I never imagined myself doing is Improv Comedy Acting!
Where Am I Now?
I am still challenged by social anxiety from time to time, and realize there is no “cure”, that it takes hard, CONSISTENT work, to maintain the progress. I, as well as many other group members over the years, have learned this lesson the hard way. Once we started to feel better, we cut back on opportunities for maintenance and growth, thinking that we had overcome it entirely. Over time, it would creep back in gradually and/or suddenly a situation would present itself and all the old, negative ways of thinking would come rushing back. However, I cannot imagine it ever going back to square one. As Dr. Richards from the Social Anxiety Institute teaches, “A setback indicates progress”. This is also important to embed in your mindset instead of viewing situations as failures. There is always room for growth.
The thought and the feeling of “the world is coming to an end!” when faced with a challenging situation is gone. I’m able to put things in 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 usually find it difficult when it comes to formal presentations and meetings in which I am required to speak in a structured format, although Toastmasters is an incredible resource for me in this area.
I am now able to attend events, classes, groups and workshops of interest. Before, the social anxiety used to hold me back from attending anything, 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 can go alone – I used to always need a “safety partner” to accompany me to any event. I now have the courage to go by 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!
In addition, I have been able to grow more professionally in my career, working at Yale University, University of Connecticut, and Hartford Hospital (it was especially exciting to work at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living).
On another path of my career in 2017, I began solely facilitating the Getting Over Stage Fright workshop created by Janet Esposito at In the SpotLight
(2011-present), once again beginning as a participant and transitioning to a leader.
In 2017, I became a Certified Master Coach through the Center for Coaching Certification.
A Whole New World
I now live my life with a new outlook, confidence and energy that I never dreamed of. Through these 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 entire life will change!
My experiences have created the person that I am today, the ups and downs and everything in between, has served a purpose. As challenging as it was and can continue to be, I wouldn’t change a thing; it’s a part of me.
Why would you choose me to guide you on this journey?
I offer the unique combination of my own personal experience and have engaged in a variety of techniques to learn how to diminish this fear as well as change my whole perspective, resulting in much healthier cognitions and behaviors. I also have a professional background in psychology and have been working in the mental health field as a researcher for over 18 years.
To view my professional background, visit my LinkedIn account.
Most importantly, I have the passion, dedication, and motivation to guide others with this challenge.
A Note of Gratitude
Without my husband, Kurt, this website and my vision of reaching out to you would not be possible. Kurt surprised me on my birthday years ago with this website domain and guided me in creating this website. Moreover, his never ending support and encouragement has helped me become the person that I am today!
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 actively seek out opportunities to challenge myself in situations that make me uncomfortable. This is how to ultimately diminish fear – to continuously challenge yourself and not lapse back into avoidance patterns.