Social anxiety is something I've always wanted to write about.
The trouble is...
Having anxiety makes it a little more complicated.
The biggest struggle I had with anxiety was that it felt so isolating.
It's so easy to think that no one else feels the same way.
Walking down the street, looking around, it felt so hard to imagine these friendly smiling faces (well, let's be honest, most people are staring at their phones) could have anxiety.
So here's my story.
Hopefully, this gives you a sense of my world, my journey, and all the things I did to help turn this frustrating thought process into a superpower.
And hopefully, it makes you feel slightly less alone.
During this journey, I traveled halfway across the globe and attended a 3-day mega-conference with 20,000 people all by myself.
I grew and sold an award-winning marketing agency.
I hired people, cold-called to grow a client list, and let people go.
I'm in the relationship that after 6-years is still getting better every single day.
And I still have moments where anxiety slaps me in the face and shits on my day. 😂
So how did it all start?
Although it's been pervasive my whole life, I only 'found out' I had social anxiety four years ago.
The same thing happened when I 'found out' I needed glasses.
You don't realise that how you're seeing life is different than others until someone puts some glasses on your face, and you're like, "oooooooooooooooooooooooh shoot, you can see all this?!"
The tough part is that people have always described me as confident, so social anxiety was far from something that ever crossed my mind.
I started a business, I've been in some incredible relationships, I had a group of amazing friends... but there was always friction.
I remember a new client when I was freelancing before I started the agency was keen to pay me $16,000 for a new website. I had just finished university, and this felt crazy.
$16,000 was about the same amount I earned the whole year before working part-time in retail.
But picking up the phone to say yes felt nearly impossible. I literally rescheduled the call 3 times.
All I had to do was send her an email with an invoice.
But I delayed for months.
I would lie in bed under the covers until midday before heading to the shared space where I was working.
To people who haven't experienced anxiety before, this just sounds stupid.
Yup. I know how it looks.
But it literally felt like I couldn't move.
To people without anxiety, the path is clear. Say yes to the project, deliver the project, earn $16,000, and have a happy client.
But at the time, sending her that invoice felt impossible. Unpacking it over the coming few years, I came to realise that my mind worked more like the following.
Saying yes means a lot of potential social risk.
What if I can't deliver?
What if I deliver and she's disappointed?
What if she tells everyone I'm the worst person she worked with, and I can't even walk down the street anymore.
What if I do deliver, and she's happy, but I hated the journey.
What if I become successful and have no more free time?
What if, what if, what if.
Things feel a LOT more personal.
Now mirror that to the reality that I was blind to.
She had been watching my content on YouTube for a few months now, so she knew a lot about me and really enjoyed my personality and previous work. We also had a few chats before that, which it felt like she had a great time with.
But the moment money was on the table, all that fell away in my mind.
Later I learned that there are labels for what I was doing. I was fortune-telling and mind-reading. I was catastrophizing.
Essentially instead of trusting what was actually happening in reality and trusting her tell me how she felt, I was 'reading her mind' with all my worst-case scenarios.
The same thing happened later on when my partner suggested we go to an aerial class together.
I wanted to say yes, but it literally felt like I was stuck in cement. I couldn't do it.
She was simply suggesting a fun bonding activity, and boom, I was out for the count.
There were also many countless times it flared up when I was in a much worse place. After an argument, feeling down, someone making a joke.
But during these times, it's harder to figure out what is a normal response versus how I felt.
So how did I figure out what was happened?
Honestly, it took until four years ago to realize.
I had been doing Tony Robbins courses for years. I hired personal coaches, attended personal development course after personal development course, but I kept feeling this block.
Through absolute desperation, I signed up for BetterHelp, which does online counseling.
I couldn't bring myself to look at someone face-to-face, so this seemed like the right solution.
I jumped on the platform and filled in the form with the area I was struggling with.
I got matched with someone, and literally, the first sentence she said was, "You have social anxiety."
This made me SO angry.
How could someone read a paragraph of what I wanted to achieve, and throw a diagnosis in my face?
So I left the platform.
But over the following months, I did a bit of research. Although I really don't agree with how the therapist approached it, she was definitely onto something.
So what next?
So how did I go from this to where I am today?
There were a lot of steps, and I'd love to deep dive into each thing that helped.
If you're in a tough spot with anxiety, it's hard to read someone else's advice because they're in a different space.
Luckily, I remember the exact first step in each area I took that hopefully, you can apply to kick-start the process.
I'll bold these first steps under each section!
Now, although these ended up helping me the most, we're all different, so try different things and create your own list of which activities lead to the most significant impact.
Also, remember nothing happens overnight.
I'm still on this journey 27 years later and finding more and more joy in the process every single day.
I know what you're thinking. Here we go again. You want me to live in the mountains and meditate don't you.
Not at all.
Even before I figured out it was anxiety that I was dealing with, I landed on meditation.
I found that it was such a perfect reprieve for my mind. It gave me a few minutes every day to stop thinking, stop looping, and to be present.
And being present literally washes away any negative feelings and puts you in a state of curiosity and gratitude.
I have been on-off meditating for over 5 years now. I've used a few different apps, mostly Headspace, and Muse (the weird-looking headband thing).
Now, while meditation can be literally the most powerful thing you do, we all forget that it takes practice and time.
Feeling good while meditating comes pretty quick.
The downside is that it's easy if you're in a quiet room by yourself.
But being able to meditate and be present while in a stressful situation is what takes time and practice.
The meditation practice really started changing for me when I discovered that Headspace has walking and running tracks.
By doing a 10-minute walk outside walking around the city while listening to the Headspace walking track, I could really practice meditating in a more stressful situation.
If I started over, I'd start here again. Head towards situations that stress you out, and practice meditation while you're in those situations.
If going to a busy mall is something that sets off the voices inside your head, then head to the mall and do a 10-minute walk around while listening to a Headspace walking track.
Practicing shifting focus away from the loops in your mind and into being present in reality is a game-changer.
What Goes In Comes Out
I use an app called DayOne that records a photo and some writing each day.
I've been using it for a few years now, and every day, I can now see a moment from the previous year's entry that I captured on the same day.
One thing I noticed is that I captured a LOT of moments from the gym or after runs.
This is because these are the moments I felt the absolute best.
Exercise is hard to focus on when you're feeling down, but it has such a massive baseline impact.
When I'm feeling my worst, a run, a walk, or a workout literally changes everything.
But, like you, it's also the hardest time to exercise because I'm feeling down!
So how do we overcome this dichotomy?
Again, it's taken me a few years to really build a habit around this, but now it's easier than ever. No matter what mood I'm in, I can get myself moving and feeling amazing once more.
This all started with a daily practice of walking around the park during my lunch break at work. I would put on some Tony Robbins hour of power or the Headspace walking track, and do a 40-minute walk around a local park next to my office with a 10-minute meditation halfway through.
Don't have a park? As long as you have a road to walk on, you'll be perfect.
Yeap... I thought working out when I felt down was hard. Coffee is one of the most significant changes for me, but also the most difficult.
Coffee naturally makes your heart beat faster, it heats you up a bit and makes your mind run more.
These are also the same things that happen when you're feeling anxious!
If you don't yet know how to control anxiety, a faster heartbeat, and your mind repeating a destructive loop is the perfect recipe for a downward cycle.
And yet, we're drinking coffee every day, reinforcing these loops.
Now I'm a self-prescribed coffee snob, so breaking this addiction was tough for me. Lots of times, I just let my anxiety run wild in exchange for the sweet, sweet caffeine hit.
But how did I break the addiction?
By taking small steps.
Going de-caf baby.
Decaf coffee has around 2 mg of caffeine. Compare that to a standard single-shot coffee, which has 80 - 100 mg.
Tea drinker? Switch to decaf tea! Green and black tea has around 30 - 50 mg of caffeine.
Now, this didn't happen all at once.
At my peak, I would have between 2 - 3 coffees a day.
This had been reduced to between 1 - 2 coffees a day a few months later.
And then I tricked my brain, mwuhahaha.
I switched one coffee a day randomly to a decaf. This helped break the pattern of craving more energy.
I realised that if I wanted more energy, I could just do 10 push-ups.
A few weeks later, I switched it all to decaf.
Now once every few weeks, I'll have a regular coffee, and that might change as I'm still ramping down.
Seriously, although it was a tough transition, it has lead to a dramatic improvement.
Questioning your beliefs
In the Headspace course on anxiety, Andy asks the question, "how often are you really anxious?"
Is it just a few times a day when you do a particular activity?
Is it just once a week but really bad?
Is it a slow hum throughout the day?
This question really changed my relationship with anxiety a lot.
From the moment that person on BetterHelp said 'you have social anxiety,' I had somewhat started to wear that label.
But if I thought about it, most of the time, I'm not actually anxious in an unhealthy way.
I know right!
Sure, I might get a little nervous and worried if I do something new, but everyone feels anxious.
So instead, if I took into account the times I was actually socially anxious in an unhealthy way, it was under 10% of my day.
And if I was being really honest, most of that time was normal nervousness. Social anxiety probably made up less than 5% of my day.
Here I was labeling myself as socially anxious, realistically 95% of my time, I was feeling great.
Now I did put in the work, but even at my lowest I would experience an unhealthy amount of social anxiety less than half my day.
So go ahead and answer the question for yourself.
Are you really socially anxious? Or are you a person who just sometimes feels anxious?
For me, this felt like taking off a heavy backpack.
My life didn't need to revolve around this label. For the 5% or less that I was feeling it, I could use the tools I'd learned to overcome it, but for the rest of the time, I could just be Steven. What a relief! I love being Steven.
I wanted to cover this since medication is something that really polarizes people's judgments.
During my lowest point, I got medication.
I was desperate to feel normal. And unlike wearing glasses for the first time, you don't even know what normal is supposed to feel like when it comes to social anxiety.
This was just before my second massive conference across the globe, this time in San Jose.
Now for me, I really just wanted to test it out to see what it felt like.
And it was an excellent experiment.
As the Doctor explained it, it takes 30 minutes to kick in and lasts for around 4 - 6 hours. Was this some sort of legal trip?!
I tested it before a big networking night, and it was super exciting.
Honestly, the anxious part slipped away. It almost felt like the side-effects of having a few drinks. I just stopped caring as much. The voice quietened. I had an awesome night.
The downside? It made me feel too zonked. My quick mind had turned into more of a sludge.
So I was there talking to more people, but not being myself.
And it was a fantastic feeling to have. Because in that moment, I decided that I'd prefer to show up as my full authentic self, even if it's harder to do so.
Compare that to showing up more, but as a half-version of Steven.
I'd rather sometimes feel anxious and still be me, compared to not feeling anxious and be half-zombie.
And if I really still feel like I need help, I can take half the dose. It almost just feels better knowing it's there as back-up.
But yeah, I want to bring this up because I completely understand the medication route. Sometimes it's fucking hard, so use it if you need it, but by practicing all these other tools, if you want to, you might be able to reduce your reliance on it a bit, or even completely.
Here's another big one.
Alcohol is a double-edged sword. Yeap, it makes you feel more loosey goosey in the short-term, but in the long term, it really mucks you up.
I used to drink so I could feel calmer in social situations. But the downside is, it's a depressant.
So actually in the long term are feeling worse.
You're also going to have a worse sleep because of the drinking.
Which means tomorrow is going to be rougher.
This means you're more likely not to practice all the anxiety-reducing exercises as much.
Which means you're more likely to be more anxious and want to drink more.
What a fun cycle.
It took me a while to ween myself of alcohol.
Again on occasions, I still drink, but two drinks max.
Past that point, I know I'm paying the price of a full day in exchange for that one extra drink.
Everyone gets anxious
Now, this is more of a thought experiment that really helped me.
It's the fact that everyone gets anxious.
Yeah, sometimes I feel more anxious maybe than the other person, but so what.
That feeling isn't something you actually want to get rid of. Anxiousness, feeling nervous, and excitement are SUPER close feelings. You can literally flick an internal switch and go from feeling nervous to feeling excited.
So don't have the mental goal of getting rid of anxiety. I know at my lowest points I've wanted to get rid of it, but it's not going anywhere.
The goal is to feel it, welcome it back like an old friend, and get excited. Because if you're feeling anxious, it means you're on the path to doing something important.
Loving Kindness Meditation
I've mentioned meditation before, but this is slightly different.
Loving-kindness meditation is a practice where you imagine people in your life, friends, family, even people you don't like, and wish them well. You think about each person one by one, and just think pleasant thoughts like 'I hope you have an amazing day today.'
Give it a Google for the proper practice, but this was a game-changer for me.
By doing this practice, it allowed me to re-wire how I thought about people. Like in my early example, I imagined the client was thinking the worst.
By doing this kind of meditation, and feeling positive intentions towards others and it really changed how my brain looped when being around people.
This one is simple and easy. There's also an app for it!
You simply ask yourself these 5 questions and write down answers to each one.
- I am grateful for…
- What would make today great?
- Daily affirmation. I am…
- 3 Amazing things that happened today…
- How could I have made today even better?
Breathing, Wim Hoff & Cold Showers
Alright, we can separate this into two parts. This one is good.
Wim Hoff is a crazy & awesome man that just makes you feel good. His tactics are simple. Breathe. Breathing makes you feel good.
Here's a quick video intro in Wim Hoff's technique.
If you're not ready to Wim Hoff, you can start off with something super simple, it's called box breathing.
Simply have a seat, smile, and follow this breathing pattern.
4 seconds in, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds out, 4 seconds hold.
Repeat for 5 minutes.
You'll be feeling fabulous in no time.
Wim Hoff is a step up from this. Although it's a bit more intense, the outcome is also more intense.
I started with his app and just did one round a day. Beginning with 20 breaths before breathing out and doing the hold.
Then this graduated into doing 3 rounds a day.
And now it's been a year, and anytime I'm in a sticky spot, I do some Wim Hoff.
He also encourages cold showers.
And to be honest, it took me about 3 months before I had my own cold shower.
And it took another month to start enjoying them.
And now I can do 10-minute ice-baths like a weirdo 😂
But on top of you walking out feeling superhuman, a cold shower is also a great mental exercise. I always think to myself, if I can take a 2 minute cold shower in the morning when it's the hardest, I can literally do anything. Having any conversation becomes a lot easier if you start off with some cold.
Just A Thought & Therapy
Like I said at the start, I was a bit scared to go face to face with a therapist.
But the best tool that I found made me okay with talking about the issue more is Just A Thought. It's a New Zealand tool that is incredible AND FREE!
It feels slow, but the impact was outstanding. By week 4, I was literally changed.
There's an exercise where you write out something that makes you anxious, and you really exaggerate it. The first time sucks. And then you repeat it. And repeat it again. And by the 10th time you write it out, you're feeling a bit weird, but okay.
That next day, I literally felt like a superhero.
It was the first time I had a full day with no loop.
So trust the process, dive in, and do the homework.
So why am I suggesting you start with a tool? According to Just A Thought, 19 out of 20 people choose online therapy over face-to-face.
So if you can go directly to a therapist, then fantastic. They'll run you through CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which has been proven time and time again to be a way to help anxiety.
If not? Then start with this tool.
My Daily Routine
So, first of all, congratulations for getting this far!!!
There's a lot to unpack here. So I wanted to share what my daily routine looks like.
Once it's written down, it's not actually too much, and every step of the way you feel better and better! 😍
- 10 minute meditation
- 10 minutes of Wim Hoff breathing
- 10 push ups
- Cold shower
- 5 minute journal
Throughout the day:
- Every hour I do some form of moving and breathing. Some squats and some square breathing
- Lunch time walk around the park
- 5 minute journal
It took me a while to realize that anxiety wasn't a weakness, but instead a superpower. Experiencing social anxiety is tough, but it makes you such a better human.
I'm like a human empathy machine. I can watch people talk and know exactly how they're feeling. When I'm in conversations, I'm so quick to pick up on tells. I remember things people don't expect. I'm simply a fantastic communicator.
It took working through anxiety and accepting it for the fear to pass away and for me to actually experience this in a conversation.
Lots of people don't ever think about the person they're talking to. They're just happy to talk. They don't think about how it makes people feel.
So while it's a little ironic that the best communicators are usually the ones who have enough empathy and awareness not do always be the ones doing the communicating.
Once you accept your superpower, you'll be in awe about how you can change the world around you.
And again, everyone gets anxious, I still get anxious, but now you'll be a zen master when it comes to the tools and practices to understand how to make it work for you.
So, here's to you.