Dear Jenny: I'm A Mom With Social Anxiety, & Well, Yep, That's The Problem
Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is a short list of situations I feel uncomfortable dealing with as a mom with crippling social anxiety: playdates, mom & me classes, school drop-off and pickups, birthday parties, spontaneous run-ins at the grocery store, seeing the neighbors in the front yard and having to talk, basically everything to do with making sure my child is sufficiently socialized and doesn't inherit my hermetic tendencies. But the unease is real, and something I worry about even when I'm not in these situations. So what do I do about all that?
Dear Anxiety Mom,
Oh, did you ever write to the right anxiety columnist. I mean advice columnist.
ANXIETY. When it's almost your turn in line at Hardee's, and you don't know what you want to order, and you start to panic because IT'S ALMOST YOUR TURN IN LINE AND YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO ORDER.
ANXIETY. When it's 4 in the morning and you're going over every embarrassing thing you've ever said and done and, in an attempt to assuage that crippling embarrassment, you Facebook-DM people you haven't spoken to in years, apologizing for things they don't remember or would please like not to be reminded of, and no one ever responds, so you spiral into more anxiety about this next, worse embarrassing thing you've said and done and suddenly it's 7 a.m. and you have to go to work.
ANXIETY. When you've been waiting for your therapist's door to open so you can start your appointment and then THE DOOR OPENS. THAT'S IT. ANXIETY ATTACK.
Life is difficult. And making it more difficult for about 18 percent of the population is some sort of anxiety disorder.
I've had generalized anxiety for more than 20 years. And I only recently realized that, although I'm an extrovert, and I teach, and I don't consider myself shy, I have what some might call a smidge of social anxiety, too. How do I know? Because I recently went on Lexapro and immediately stopped getting drunk at social functions. Coincidence OR NO.
Removing the trigger for social anxiety — other people — will give you temporary relief.
Let me just be upfront and say I'm a convert when it comes to medication. Before I started taking an anti-anxiety drug, every day — and I mean EVERY DAY — was a continuous cycle of anxiety pulsing up and down my sternum. I didn't realize until it went away how physically painful it was, and how painful it was to constantly brace myself against it. When an anxiety spike was really bad, it would course up my sternum and all the way down my arms to my fingertips, which felt like they were going to break off.
And most of what made me anxious didn't qualify for the fight-or-flight response my body was having. Anxiety, I have learned, is something that is hardwired into my brain, and it has a very short connection to rage, for everything from getting my purse strap caught on a doorknob WHICH IS REALLY ANNOYING YOU HAVE TO ADMIT to running late to imagining someone is mad at me (my worst trigger) — and that hardwiring means that everything that was recommended to me (other than medication) to mitigate my anxiety DIDN'T F*CKING WORK.
But I put off medication because I was afraid that if I took a pill every day, it would hurt my liver and I would die early (anxiety, anyone?). Other people have other fears — most commonly of the side effects (including, famously, difficulty in achieving orgasm, or, if you have a penis, an erection) and that it will change you.
GUESS WHAT IT DOES CHANGE YOU IT TAKES AWAY YOUR ANXIETY.
Now, with all the research about anxiety shortening your life span and how anti-anxiety medication can actually act as an anti-inflammatory, it seems more likely that, for some people, anti-anxiety medication may extend your lifespan.
Obviously, I am a fan.
But medication is not the route for everyone. So what are the options? The single other thing that helped me not to feel anxiety was exercising really, really hard. Getting outside was good. Yoga was great. Therapy helped me understand the roots of my anxiety. And deep breathing helped, but only when I remembered to breathe deeply, which was only when someone else was telling me to breathe deeply.
Still, every time I saw an internet listicle telling me to exercise, get outside, go to therapy, go to yoga, and take deep breaths I felt overwhelmed and ANXIOUS. Because none of these things worked all the time, and when I didn't feel like putting the energy into exercising, going to therapy, going to yoga, getting outside, and taking deep breaths MAYBE BECAUSE IT DIDN'T WORK ALL THE TIME, I felt blamed, as if I wasn't working hard enough to cure my anxiety, which, surely, with enough hard work on my part, could be cured.
THEY SHOULDN'T CALL IT THE INTERNET THEY SHOULD CALL IT SHAME. HAVE YOU BEEN ON SHAME TODAY. LOOK AT THIS INTERESTING MEME I FOUND ON SHAME. HEY IS THE SHAME WORKING WHAT'S THE SHAME PASSWORD SHAME SHAME SHAME.
Consider setting a few boundaries for yourself, knowing how much all these interactions take out of you and how long it takes for you to recover. You really don't have to do all of it.
You might find a practice that mitigates your anxiety. It's definitely worth a try. But say you don't. Say you're like me and you've done all these things and you still have anxiety. These are three things — let's call it a listicle! — that might help you deal.
- Regular periods of being alone. Like, completely alone. Removing the trigger for social anxiety — other people — will give you temporary relief. This might mean hiding in your stepdaughter's treehouse with a glass of wine NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THAT or lying flat on your back for 10 minutes or taking a walk around the block.
- Figuring out what you don't need to do. I'm not suggesting avoiding people entirely, because that can lead to problems (especially LONELINESS, which leads to even more serious problems), but do you have to do all of it? If you have a partner, does your lifestyle allow for that person to take on more of the daycare pickups and drop-offs? Do you need to be present for all the playdates? Can you drop your kids off and offer the same to the other parents in exchange? Do you need to go to all the mommy-and-me classes? Consider setting a few boundaries for yourself, knowing how much all these interactions take out of you and how long it takes for you to recover. You really don't have to do all of it.
- Having at least one really, really good friend, who will talk with you about your every neurosis, who will go down that rabbit hole with you, who will make you feel listened to and respected, and who will laugh with you, and at you, and make you feel better.
HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE. ALSO ANXIETY. BEING A PARENT IS HARD ENOUGH, SO GO EASY ON YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF YOURSELF. ACCEPT YOUR CONDITION, AND TAKE YOUR HEALTH SERIOUSLY. I KNOW HOW MUCH YOU'RE SUFFERING AND THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS FOR YOU TO STOP SUFFERING. IT MAY TAKE SOME TIME, BUT DON'T GIVE UP ON FINDING A SOLUTION THAT WORKS FOR YOU. YOU GOT THIS.
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