*I want to start this off with a disclaimer that this is what I have found to work for me. Everyone’s mental health needs are different and require unique, nuanced treatments and coping mechanisms. I am not a doctor and this is not intended to be taken as medical advice, this is based on my own personal experience.*
Let’s start at the beginning
When I was in elementary school I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), at the time they were separate disorders. At the time the best course of action looked like medication and as a 4th grader, I was put on a daily dose of Concerta to help me pay attention in class. After a little under a year my mom stopped the medication, she said that it made me less like myself and that she didn’t like how it changed me. I can honestly say that for that time in my life I have very few memories, almost like I was there, but not there. I found my written evaluation when I was in my early teens and was instantly embarrassed and self-conscious about what the observing psychologist had written about me.
Finding those notes was the first time I had that feeling of being different, being watched, and being evaluated in social situations. I believe that if you can track a mental disorder back to one moment finding those notes is what spurred on my social anxiety. It changed how I interacted with people every day. I was always a little extra chatty, but I was never embarrassed by acting a way that felt natural to me, and never felt that I had to overcompensate for an innate difference between me and the person next to me.
After finding those notes I became hyper-aware and fearful of how other people were perceiving me. Social anxiety can turn you into a different person. Personally, I am very introverted, which for someone who knows me may be a surprise. I truly am happiest when I am in the background, quieter in the conversation, and taking it all in instead of being the center of attention. My anxiety makes me feel that, in a social situation, I am constantly being judged and therefore constantly have to prove myself. Being “on” like that can be extremely taxing on and draining for me.
One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was enrolling in a small college. I had always wanted to go to a large school, being completely anonymous was extremely attractive to me (I grew up in a small town, in a family of seven, and more often than not was referred to as “one of the Shephards”. I absolutely hated how people would know me without knowing me at all.) Another attractive quality to a large school was the class size.
Lectures of 100+ students initially seem like the exact opposite someone with ADD/ADHD would need, however as a young adult I was much better at handling my attention issues and was able to learn quite well in those “fly-on-the-wall” situations. Of course, I would always have a tape recorder (thanks, Dad!) in case I spaced out in class and needed to listen to the lesson a second time, but in a lot of ways lecture-based learning was how I had been taught to learn all through middle and high school. It was familiar.
In the small college I ended up going to only one of my classes was lecture-based, all the others were based on small groups and roundtable discussions. It was not a learning style that suited me. To sit and read the 30+ pages needed per class was extremely difficult, and then to be put in a social situation where, in front of your peers, you needed to demonstrate not just a retention, but a comprehension of the reading was consistently challenging. Social anxiety makes getting a question wrong feel like taking a bullet. It’s not just the moment of making a mistake, it’s the inability to move past it. While the conversation pivots and weaves its way throughout the classroom you are still locked into that moment. Reliving it over and over.
Each class felt like a punishment and I spiraled, barely doing the readings, skipping class, and doing anything to distance myself from the fact that I was not getting it. After my first semester, I had a 1.5 GPA and was on academic probation. Before that day my GPA had never been below 3.75. I’m happy that I was able to retake classes, turn things around, and graduate with a 3.87 GPA.
Looking back I am, genuinely surprised that I graduated at all, much less with honors. I have reread some of the work I produced in my collegiate level courses and feel it was worse than my high school level work. I was not in the right environment for me and my learning. I had immense anxiety about disappointing my professors, my parents, and my peers and felt that transferring college would be an admittance of the fact that I couldn’t cut it.
My anxiety held me to stay in a situation where it was crippling my ability to succeed.
The purpose of sharing all of this is two-fold. For one it’s a self declaration that I am not the person I was in high school or college and that that person’s mistakes or short-comings don’t determine who am I or who I can be (if you are someone who lives with anxiety you know how difficult it can be to release yourself from previous mistakes). The second is to explain how I was able to make changes for myself to make my anxiety more manageable. There is no one-size-fits-all for managing a mental illness, but for me, a few foundational changes to my day to day has made all the difference.
Checking In. There’s a meditation technique of the “swinging door”. Essentially it’s a way to cope with those moments in meditation when a thought enters the mind. Instead of getting wrapped up in the thought and panicking about your inability to focus the idea is to acknowledge the thought and then let it go like a swinging door. This is similar to what I refer to as the “check-in” that I give myself. Instead of forcing myself to relax and trying to bury or compartmentalize anxiety I acknowledge it. When I feel I’m getting anxious, I take several deep breaths, try to make my mind go blank, and then approach the problem or trigger again. Does this work every time? Not at all, but it slows me down and gives me a moment to focus on something else.
Caring for Myself Physically. I’ve been an athlete my entire life. Taking care of my body is just as important as taking care of my mind. When I am physically active and nourished I genuinely feel better. I’m vigilant about how much I go out and drink, how often I eat foods that lack the nutrition I need, and especially how much I eat gluten. I’ve been diagnosed with a gluten allergy, but even if I hadn’t I would still avoid it. I’ve noticed that when I lower the amount of gluten in my diet I sleep better and feel less anxiety. If I notice anxiety building over several days I’ll check in with my physical health and make sure I’m still caring for myself in the ways that I need to be.
Taking a “Time Out”. I’m a naturally introverted person with social anxiety who grew up in a family of seven. “Me” time wasn’t something I ever realized I needed. As an adult, I worked at a retail store and found it to be completely draining. I would work from 3 pm to 10 pm, come home and sleep until 1:30 pm the next day. I wasn’t energized, inspired, excited, it was like I was living on auto-pilot. If I have a lot of events one week / weekend I will be sure to clear my schedule for the following few days to recharge. It’s important for my mental health to be able to take a step back and spend time by myself. This is also something I openly communicate with any partners I have and they will often schedule things on nights I need my me time so that I can have the apartment to myself. If you are co-living with a significant other I highly suggest asking for the same if solo time helps you.
Reevaluating my Relationships. Sometimes you create relationships that take more than they feed you. Growing up in a family of seven made me very co-dependent and I know that I need to be in friendships, relationships, and groups of people I feel I can rely on to truly relax. If I feel like I am consistently stretching myself for one particular friend or group I will carefully vet how often I let them in my life. Especially if I’m having a “rundown week”. I prioritize the things and people that will feed my happiness and keep my mind clear.
For more strategies, check out this post.