Understanding therapy and its importance in managing social anxiety – A friend’s story

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At some point in our lives, most of us have dealt with anxiety, or simply put – the hesitation in interacting with a group of people. These could be situations at work, in social circles or even within families that act as triggers, making one feel nervous or uncomfortable. Usually, such situations involve – public speaking, giving presentations, meeting strangers at a social gathering, calling up an important business client for the first time, etc.. One can feel bodily changes like sweating, stomach aches, nausea, heart palpitations, shallow breaths and dry throats – all indicative of anxiety. These physical symptoms recede with time, once the task is over.

However, there could be circumstances that make it difficult for a person to come out of social anxiousness, inhibiting him/her from performing daily tasks and routines. These circumstances could be personal or professional, but often leave a deep impact on the person’s behaviour, and should be taken seriously. Sharmada, a public health professional based in New Delhi, has been managing social anxiety with the help of therapy over the past one year.

Being a socially active person, Sharmada noticed her behaviour change. She began avoiding meeting her friends and colleagues. She recounts her reactions when friends would make plans, “My mind would immediately spin out of control – wait, how should I reply? I want to seem unavailable but with a legit reason, because the thought of making plans and exchanging schedules would feel like so much work.”

Sharmada experienced feelings of social anxiety after she went through a personal loss – the passing away of her maternal aunt. “Her demise affected me in a way I had not anticipated. The constant worry for my mother and my cousin sister (aunt’s daughter) altered the way I interacted with people around.” As she saw her mother and her cousin display signs of resilience, Sharmada sometimes experienced emotions of incapacity, self-judgement and guilt, which further alienated her from her circles.

However, in due time, Sharmada realised these episodes of social anxiety as patterns that needed professional attention. That is when she decided to go for therapy, and through her experience, highlights some of the important points one must consider before seeking counselling.

  1. Identify social anxiety – It is very important to recognise the symptoms and factors leading to social anxiety, and not brushing them off as one-off episodes. Sharmada recounts a day, when in order to avoid meeting anyone, she chose to stay out of home but not go to work. Although it did help to keep away from people on that day, Sharmada understood that this was not a solution but an indication of an underlying issue.
  2. Talk to someone trustworthy – Before seeking therapy, talking about one’s feelings and thoughts to someone they trust is highly important. Before going to a counsellor, Sharmada got a better understanding of her behaviour by talking to her sister-in-law and close friends, all of whom helped her take the decision of seeking therapy. They helped her become self-aware of her social anxiety, its effects on her daily tasks and decision-making.
  3. Find the right therapist – This is by far one of the most important and often a time-consuming task on the path towards better mental health. Sharmada calls it a two-way communication, where the person and their counsellor must build an understanding on the form of therapy that works best. “In my case, talking about situations and my responses to them worked for me and my therapist. I could express myself better, which my therapist used as a guidance technique to improve our sessions together.”
  4. Be honest in your therapy sessions – Having an open and honest conversation is vital for therapy to work. It helps one dig deeper into their underlying issues and causes of emotional stress, eventually enabling the therapist to develop the most-suited course of action. Thus, it is equally important to have a non-judgemental therapist, one who listens with empathy and an un-biased rationale.
  5. Therapy is not a linear curve – Taking a lot of therapy sessions is not always indicative of improved mental health. Sharmada emphasises this point by highlighting the importance of inculcating better habits like – writing journals, blogging, reading, listening to music, physical training etc. all of which aid in improving one’s mental health. Also, despite going for therapy sessions, one can relive moments of anxiety when dealing with new circumstances.

Her experience is a valuable lesson for readers who might have undergone similar instances of social anxiety, but choose to compartmentalise it as circumstantial episodes. Families that have undergone strains of chronic illnesses could also have members dealing with severe anxiety issues that go unnoticed. This can be exclusively in the case of patient-caregiver relationships, in which the caregiver might ignore symptoms of anxiety, which could further aggravate the situation. Friends and family members, should thus pay close attention and initiate open discussions around mental health.

Going for therapy could be challenging especially since there continues to be social stigma around it and it is also expensive. However, it is crucial to understand the importance of talking to someone professional and inculcating better response mechanisms to severe anxiety-causing situations. Here is a crowd-sourced list of credible health professionals in India, which readers can consult and potentially help someone in need. It should be noted that therapy might not be the answer for everyone. Habits such as – regular physical exercisemindful meditation, and journal writing, can also help in developing a stronger mindset.

This article was featured in PatientsEngage as part of their Personal Voices series.  https://www.patientsengage.com/personal-voices/therapy-helped-me-manage-social-anxiety 

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