So it started the end of my first year of uni. I started withdrawing. I withdrew from the little group of friends I had. I showed up to lectures late to avoid people. When you haven’t seen people in a while it’s always awkward anyway. So it all compounded.
At the time I thought it was normal. “Welcome to uni – everything has changed!” That kind of thing. And I’ve always been introverted; I’ve never really needed people. But I hadn’t ever felt so stressed out about it.
I spent the next couple of years just thinking, “Oh, there’s nobody to study with,” or “there’s nobody to ask any questions to,” and “I don’t really have any friends at uni – that’s kind of sad”. It just snowballed and it felt like I was failing as a person.
That was undergrad in a nutshell.
I didn’t really realise it was an actual thing until I did my mental health first aid training. We were sitting there talking about social anxiety and I thought, “hey that’s me!” But even then, I just struggled with this internalised worry that it’s just not bad enough. I mean I’d done well in uni and I’d got into med. I hadn’t completely fallen apart.
The first time I went to see a counsellor was when I found out I got into med school. At that point I figured that I didn’t want to spend the next four years lonely and sad and failing. It had been going on for so long and I was still doing stuff but I certainly wasn’t living in a way that felt good. I figured it wasn’t normal, it wasn’t right. I ended up having a couple of sessions with the lady at the university counselling and she had some good tools to utilise. I saw her 3 or 4 times before med and haven’t had to go back since! I haven’t felt the need to completely withdraw from people, which is the bar I set for myself. It’s sort of something you carry everyday.
How have things been going more recently?
I’m a bit more settled now. Got some friends, which is nice, but they don’t know! And that’s because, in part because, of social anxiety – you want people to like you. And since I only just started med I’ve had to make new friends and you just want to fit in. I didn’t want to set myself apart.
But it is important that people realise sometimes you have a bad day and all you want is a hug. You want them to know that you are really interested in what they’re saying but you just can’t think of what to reply because you’re panicked. It’d be nice for them to know, and for everyone to understand.
I think social anxiety has all these meanings in med as compared to other professions. I mean, otherwise it would be fine – just work in an office. But in med you’re talking to other people all the time. You’ve got to ask the right questions, you’ve got to be insightful and caring. So yeah, you don’t want to be seen as incapable and not coping.
I still find certain things like my case tutorials distressing. You have to put yourself out there, and your ideas, and you don’t want to look stupid, especially in med where everyone’s really smart. You have bad days and good days. Some days you have things to talk about and you’re in a good mood, other days you’re in a bad mood, or they are, and it gets out of hand and you start wanting to withdraw.
How do you handle your anxiety then?
That’s when I have to sit and think about what’s going on right now. I ask myself if I need to up my stress relief. There’s always so much to stress about in general, it’s just that sometimes it boils over and rears its ugly head. When that happens I think that maybe I’m not taking as much care of myself or I should be structuring my time better.
I use the smiling minds meditation and breathing exercises. I’m very in my head when I’m stressed out so I don’t notice how I’m physically coping. The whole point of the technique is to get your breath in the right time to be able to focus on where the stress is coming from. It puts a spanner in the works for what’s going on in my head.
It gets hard to do when you’re around so many people. It’s hard to step back and think – what do I need right now? Between studying and seeing friends and everything else, there’s not much time to look after yourself, but it’s so important that you do make yourself a priority.