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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 311.
Welcome back, everybody. I am so happy to have you with me today. Today, we’re talking about what to do if people notice how anxious you are. This is something that I’ve even thought about myself. When you’re having anxiety, it’s like, “Are people noticing how anxious I am?” And when you worry about that or you think about that, sometimes it can actually create more anxiety for you. Quite a few of you have asked this question to me in the past, specifically around when doing exposures. As you go to do your exposures, then you have this secondary thought of like, “Oh my goodness, are people actually seeing how anxious I am?” So, I wanted to do a podcast just about this topic.
Before we get into the episode, let’s quickly run through the “I did a hard thing” for the week. This one is from Anonymous and they said:
“My son just started preschool this month. For context, my OCD and anxiety has me housebound for the last two years, and never in a million years did I think I was going to be able to handle this. I still feel discomfort and struggle with intrusive thoughts, but the sparkle in his eye when I pick him up makes it all worth it. This has reinforced the importance of pushing through even when it’s hard.”
Anonymous, this is so good. Look at you go. And I think we can all resonate with being so overwhelmed with anxiety, but we make decisions based on our values, not our fear. And then we get to see people sparkle in people’s eyes or our own eyes. And I’m so excited to have you share that with me. So, thank you so much.
All right, quickly, review of the week. This is from Sybil Cross and they said:
“Compassionate and competent care. My ERP therapist recommended this podcast to me and I love it! It is both educational and supportive. It helps me learn more about my OCD and feel comforted, all while retaining its therapeutic value. Thank you for all your hard work and love, Kimberley!”
It is my pleasure. Thank you, Sybil, for sharing that amazing review. Please do go and leave a review. I know I say it every week, but you do not understand how helpful it is to me. I am really doubling down in 2022 and next year on really making sure this podcast reaches as many people and makes a massive impact. So, your reviews mean so much to me.
All right, let’s get over to the show.
Have you ever been out and about doing your thing socially and then all of a sudden, you have anxiety and then you start to worry, what if people start to notice that I’m anxious? If this is you, you’re going to want to listen up because today we’re going to go through what to do if people do notice or what to do if you’re afraid of people noticing that you have anxiety.
So, thank you so much for joining me again today. I love spending time with you, talking about all things anxiety. Let’s talk about what to do if people do notice that you have anxiety. So, the first thing to ask yourself, and I love asking questions because I think it really helps us to really understand the actual problem, but what I’m going to ask you is, what’s your actual fear? If you’re afraid of someone noticing that you are anxious, what are you actually saying there? Are you afraid that maybe they’re going to judge you for having anxiety? Or are you afraid that there may be some consequence for having anxiety? Sometimes people are afraid in certain work environments or school environments. Or is it that you’re afraid that if they notice you have anxiety, that then you’ll then have even more anxiety and then that creates a perpetual cycle? Let’s take a look at these outcomes depending on which one you struggle with.
So, let’s talk about first the fear that they might judge you. Now, if this is you, there is a pretty good chance you may have social anxiety. Social anxiety is a specific anxiety disorder around the fear of being judged by others socially or feeling humiliation or embarrassment around others socially. And often what we understand about social anxiety is it’s actually not so much an anxiety disorder. Well, yes, you will feel a lot of anxiety, but we actually understand it to also be a shame disorder. Often people go out and then enter the social environment and they’re afraid that if someone notices an adequacy or a floor, that they’ll be judged and that will create a lot of shame for them. Remember, fear and shame is often associated together. They often go together. And shame is really about us having a thought that there’s something wrong with us, that we are inherently bad.
So, if your fear is that you’re going to be noticed and they’ll catch you, and then you’re going to feel shame, what you’ll want to do here is work at being able to navigate your shame. Stay here and we’ll talk about that a little bit later. It could be also that you’re afraid of humiliation or embarrassment. Some people don’t want to be judged because then they know they’ll get stuck in a cycle of regret. “Why did I do that? Should I have done that? What could I have done different?” which looks a lot like mental rumination, which we know is a mental compulsion, a common behavior we do to try and reduce or remove anxiety.
So, we can talk a little bit more in a second about how to manage that. First, let’s talk about another concern people have, which is that you’re afraid that if you get noticed for having anxiety, that you might have more. The thing to remember here, and you probably know this from me already, is the more you try to make fear go away, the more likely you are to have a strong wave of fear. So, remember, what you resist persists. So, if you’re saying, “What if someone notices that I’m anxious and then that makes me more anxious,” if you’re paying a lot of tension to their facial expression, trying to figure out what they’re thinking about you, chances are, you will have more anxiety because of how much attention you’ve put on their opinion of you.
The last piece here is, will there be consequences? So, let’s really talk about that. Some people are concerned that if they are visibly anxious, let’s say you’re giving a presentation at work or school or you’re meeting your boss for your yearly meeting or your teacher for a check-in and so forth, that there will be consequences if you’re visibly jittery, nervous, stuttering, shaky. Some people are afraid that they’ll get noticed for sweating. And sometimes there can be consequences. Maybe a part of your job or your schooling is to be able to perform. And if you’re engaging in avoidant behaviors, yes, there may be some consequences that go along with that.
But what I’m going to encourage you to do to manage this is talk to your boss, talk to your teacher, talk to your coach, whoever it may be that you’re concerned will employ these consequences. Ask them what we can do and what they can do and how you can get supported as you manage your anxiety. Hopefully, it’s an environment that supports mental health struggles and supports mental health in general. And usually, I have found, if you go to your boss or your teacher or your dean or your parent or your coach or whoever it may be, and you let them know that you’re struggling, they may have some really helpful tools or they may actually be able to help you to manage that in that environment. So, 100%, while I know bringing it to their attention is actually your fear, that can often very much help.
Now, if you’re in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable going to them and sharing that-- it could even be with a friend, or a partner, a boyfriend, girlfriend, someone you’re interested in. If you’re really afraid of that and you don’t want to share, that is entirely okay. But what it does mean is, and this is where we get to the tools, you’re going to have to give yourself permission to have anxiety.
So, number one, the main thing I’m going to tell you if you have this fear in any certain way is, if you are going into this circumstance or this event saying you shouldn’t have anxiety, you’re going to have more anxiety. We know that to be true. So, what do you do instead? You can practice allowing your anxiety to be there and actually saying, “This is a good thing.” And I know it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel fun, but what you’re saying is, “Here is an opportunity for me to have the anxiety and show up anyway.”
Number two, here is an opportunity for me to have the anxiety and show up and really see who are the true friends, who are the unconditional friends, who can be caring and compassionate in this environment, and can I face this fear, and baby steps, make small wins, and have small achievements where you’re able to increase your willingness to have the anxiety, increase your tolerance of discomfort and sensations that you don’t like.
The next thing I want you to do is, number three, the most important, you will be shocked how important and how helpful it can be if you practice self-compassion. If you are using the tool of self-criticism to manage this, chances are, you’re going to make your anxiety a whole bunch worse. So, instead, try validating yourself. “It makes complete sense that this is hard for me. It makes complete sense that this would create anxiety for me.” Maybe you would say, “Anyone else in this situation would have anxiety.” And I know your brain is going to say, “No, no. Jack, John, and Jennifer could do this without anxiety.” The thing to remember is, they might be a few steps ahead of you and you can get there too. Our brains are neuroplastic. We can actually get there too with practice, small wins and self-compassion. The self-criticism is only going to make you more anxious. Really, I think you probably already know this, but I think it’s important for you to understand, self-criticism only makes it worse, and we want you to do great, and we know you can do great.
Number four is, be an observer to what’s going on. So, let’s say you’re about to do this event or this social experience with somebody, or you’re about to have a conversation, and you’re shaking or you’re sweating or you’re stuttering, or whatever it may be. Your job is to be an observer of your thoughts about that.
Now, here is an example. I am often with anxious people. It’s a normal part of my day. I’m an anxiety specialist, but I go into a lot of exposures with my patients. We go to Costco, we go to the supermarket, we go to the outdoor park, and my patients practice exposing themselves to the exact thing they’re afraid of. And what you’ll find here is the average human that they interact with are incredibly forgiving. Humans want to like you. They don’t want to not like you. They want to be in connection with you. They don’t want to be out of connection with you. And when you’re struggling, if that is the case, 99% of the time, they have enough empathy and compassion to help you along. And so, a part of this work is you increasing your ability to see the good of the human race.
Now, I know you may have had a few experiences where people weren’t so kind, but the good people are out there. It’s just a matter of practicing. And when I go on exposures with my patients, they’re actually pleasantly surprised. We might go to the supermarket and we might say, “Okay, I want you to go and ask 10 people for the time, or I want you to look 15 people in the eye and say good morning to them. Or I want you to ask five people a question, where is the local bank, or can you tell me where such and such street is?” And 99% of the time, they walk away going, “Wow, people are actually kinder than I thought.” There are people who don’t want to talk to them, and that’s usually because they’re anxious too. And so, it’s important for us to understand and have an understanding of the human race here, and give ourselves permission to show up imperfectly when we’re around other people.
Now, another thing I want you to think about here is, how can I practice on purpose facing this fear. I know what you’re thinking. You’re like, “Let me just shut this down. Where’s the pause button?” But I really want you to understand that there are hundreds of opportunities in your day where you can practice showing up anxious on purpose and how many of those can you put in a day. Put them in your calendar, plan for them, leave work, or leave for school a little early so you could get an extra couple of practice runs in with this.
If someone had, let’s say, a fear of being shaky, I actually encourage them to be shaky. Sometimes we even induce shakiness for them. We might have them have a cup of coffee before they do the exposure so that they’re on purpose feeling this feeling and they’ve got a lot of practice doing it.
And then the last thing I want you to remember is, once you’ve done all these steps and you’ve done the hard thing, because I always say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things, I want you to then practice what we call response prevention. Response prevention is, now that you’ve done the hard thing, you’re to practice not engaging in rumination and self-criticism, the things that actually you used to do, which only make you feel worse and actually reinforce the fear. You’re going to practice not doing those things and instead engage back into the world and just practice moving on, practice engaging in what you are showing up to do, practice engaging in the things that you love and that you value. Instead of sitting there looping about how it went and what they thought and what they think about you and how did they perceive you and you should have said this and you shouldn’t have said that, your job is actually to catch the urge to engage in that rumination and then bring yourself back to the present. Now, if you can do those things, you are leaps and bounds ahead of where you would be if you weren’t engaging in those things. And we know that small steps lead to medium size steps, which lead to massive steps forward.
Now, what is the one thing I want you to take away? Because I really love giving you a takeaway here. Number one, the more you try and avoid the fear, the more you’re probably going to have it. And then the last thing here I’m going to say is, go gentle. Go easy. Catch how you’re engaging in self-criticism. The truth is, we have a lot of research to show that people aren’t thinking about you nearly as much as you think they are. Most of the time, they’re thinking about them. They’re thinking about what they’re going to have for lunch and their meeting that they have coming up and, “Whoops, I forgot to get milk at the grocery store.” They’re not hyper-attending to every little mistake that you make as much as you think they are. And if they are in fact judging you that heavily, that is a strong relation and reaction of what’s going on in their mind. It actually shows us a lot. It’s a reflection of what they value and what they’re judging about themselves. And so, really other people’s judgment is often just a reflection of their judgment about themselves and the way that they think. And our work is actually to focus on actually being the person you want to be or who do you want to be? How do you want to show up? What are your values? What kind of person do you want to be?
So, I hope that’s been helpful. At the end of the day, you will be judged. This is something I have had to learn the hard way. I have had to learn that not everyone is going to like me, and that is okay. I am a messy human being. I am not perfect. I was never supposed to be perfect. And my job is to give myself some grace and some compassion for the fact that I’m just a human, messy person, just like you’re a human, messy person. And that’s true for every human. Okay?
Have a wonderful day. Do remember it’s a beautiful day to do hard things and I look forward to talking to you again next week.