Excessive thinking – the life of the socially anxious

    Anxiety can be a tricky subject. It comes in different shapes, sometimes it comes and goes. Often, it is mixed with other mental illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder. What many might not know is just how hugely impacted one’s life is by extreme worrying, overthinking, obsession with perfection; simpler said: what it is like to overanalyze every single detail of your life and what surrounds you, without actually wishing to do that.

    According to NHS, anxiety is a “feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe”. There is a difference between feeling anxious and being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. “Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. For example, you may feel worried and anxious about sitting an exam or having a medical test or job interview. During times like these, feeling anxious can be perfectly normal. But some people find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives”.

    First and foremost, I have not been diagnosed, but I have been doing in-depth research for the past over six years to understand my symptoms. I often describe my symptoms as my brain having a brain of its own, because that is what it feels like. It’s not like I can just stop my brain from thinking excessively, and I don’t even want to think about everything, yet I do. Truthfully, it is beyond exhausting. I don’t even realize I am analyzing insignificant details, until later on. I am aware how said details sound when explaining my experience to others, but as previously stated, I cannot help it, so I believe it is important to bring awareness to this subject, given that social anxiety is not merely being “shy”.

    I reached out to Rodica Afrăsinei, who is currently working at PsyLife as a psychologist. She explained that people with anxiety have learned that they aren’t safe, in a way or another, and that it is helpful to regard anxiety as a complex state of being and mind, through which most of us go in life.

    Saying that I do overthink and overanalyze everything is not an overstatement. What did the cashier think when I said I had no coins? Will the taxi driver think I would like to get in if I walk too close to the car? Did I look weirdly at the girl who just got out of the bathroom? Keep eye contact to a minimum. Walk fast, confidently. Eye contact makes me feel uncomfortable. How should I word this text (while rereading it 10 times and panicking)? I won’t speak again. The teacher didn’t even hear what I said. Why is she looking at me like that? Why am I so shy? Why can’t I just speak? Why am I so deeply uncomfortable and want to cry? I wish I could just talk to her. Shit, I am almost the only one not taking notes. What if my answer is wrong? (it very often is the correct one, but I cannot bring myself to speak). Does my friend think I’m dumb? Definitely. It’s not like she would tell me as much. I couldn’t even find the address without panicking and had to call, when I was actually in front of the gate. Embarrassing. How do I pass by the girls in front of the dorm? Avoid eye contact. My backpack got stuck in the doorway. Embarrassing. Did the stranger I saw three months ago look at me weirdly when I left my friend’s place? Do I turn on my camera? I look awful. I want to speak. I wish I could. I look tired and mad, but that’s just my face. How am I eating? Did they see I took too big a spoonful? Do my colleagues think I’m dumb? Can they see I’m cold? The dad in the car looked at me. Keep on walking. Always check your phone when feeling anxious. You can do this. Should I not take two small steps when walking down the stairs? Do not run to the bus, pretend you don’t have to take it. Am I being judged for wearing a T-shirt, although it’s cold outside? Can those strangers see I can hardly breathe? I look awful. Why do I look like that when I’m laughing? I hate the way I look in pictures taken by other people. I cannot reach the top drawer at the store, can people see that? The list could go on forever. It never stops.

    Photo by María Prieto on Pixabay

    “One way this can be seen in day-to-day life is as excessive thinking, on a very pessimistic note, regarding near or far future possibilities. This phenomenon is also called catastrophizing. It is helpful to recognize these moments and observe that there are many tangled thoughts in our mind that depict countless dangers, for which we are not prepared. Socially, such dangers can be people who judge us, laugh at us, discredit and humiliate us,” psychologist Rodica Afrăsinei explains.

    Imagine not being able to speak. Having the desire to, but simply not being able to. Very similar to Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Double the distress when you are meeting somebody new, somebody you really like, as a friend or more, but not having the ability to talk, because what if something bad happens? You talk too fast. They cannot understand you. Somebody talks over you. You give up, keep on feeling extremely uncomfortable, and observing the others sat near you, wishing you were them. Naturally, making a mistake, however small, feels like the end of the world. Rationally speaking, it is not, but anxiety is not rational. Nor are panic attacks. I had a panic attack a while back, because I had messed up my friend’s age, and when I realized what I had done, I began to panic badly. My heart was racing, I was uncomfortable, shaky, teary, and I figured she was going to be mad. The rational part of my brain told me that wouldn’t happen, but I couldn’t stop freaking out. Spoiler alert, she wasn’t mad in the slightest, but that’s the way my brain works. I wouldn’t say I am necessarily a very negative person, but I do think of the worst possible or impossible outcomes. It’s all the overthinking I do. I quite often think of the reaction before I say something. It’s an entire process.

    Rodica Afrăsinei further states that by noticing our thoughts and having safe environments where we can ask for feedback, we will eventually be able to distinguish between real and unreal dangers, and defend ourselves from them. “Much gentleness and patience are needed in order to manage these difficulties. We should remind ourselves that there is a profound background in our past that left us with the feeling of insecurity”. If we understand and accept our patterns and tendencies, we can make changes at our own pace.

    I had a discussion with a girl I have recently met, and she pointed out how apparently amazing it is that I am so aware of my symptoms, and how I do know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t believe I have ever thought of it like that. Sure, I have done a lot of research, especially when I was feeling anxious or depressed, and I have taken many quizzes, to the point that I kind of know what I would be asked if I were to see a psychiatrist. I used to see my former high school’s counselor (psychologist) and she was surprised I was so well-researched when I mentioned the concept of intrusive thoughts. She said my generation reads up about mental health.

    As stated by Mental Health America, “fifteen million, or 7%, of American adults have Social Anxiety Disorder”. Over 75% first experience symptoms of anxiety as children or early teenagers. When it comes to Europe, epidemiologic surveys show that close to 7% of its general population has shown characteristics of this disorder. A study in Romania has concluded that the lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders indicated by the answers of the 2537 participants of 18 years or older, and 940 cases of 44 years old or less, is 6.9%.

    “What we are currently doing is actually recreating beliefs inside ourselves that the world is a safe place and that we can control the environment in which we live (e.g., if somebody laughs at me when I trip over something, I can make a joke about it, laugh, or I could tell them to stop),” says Afrăsinei. Meditation, yoga and sports are some of the activities the psychologist mentions when talking about being aware of our own bodies, feelings and tools to use in case of danger.

    “It is often the case that there is no real danger and when that happens, our body comes to our rescue so that we can stick to reality through our senses (what I see, hear, taste, smell, feel on my skin). What is happening in the present reminds me that I have more control over possible danger, as opposed to past moments I was not able to fight”.

    Rodica Afrăsinei, psychologist

    I spoke to Alexis*, 34, in order to gain a deeper insight into how social anxiety affects other people. Alexis said she had experienced social anxiety prior to the pandemic and further explained that it would happen when dealing with groups of people she did not know. The self-consciousness part has always been present, to the extent of what she was going to say, and whether she’d make a good impression. I was curious to find out how overwhelming her symptoms were and how she deals with them. She told me she wasn’t being herself and that she was nearly unable to get some coherent phrases out; the way she deals with social anxiety is by trying to see it rationally, as well as playing it cool and acting confident when surrounded by others. When asked if she was able to deal with a recent panic attack rationally, Alexis confirmed that she always tries to think it through as much as she can and she reassures herself that it’s all in her head. She relies on logic and facts, which she let me know it works for her, even if it’s just to a certain extent. Alexis went on and stated that anxiety does, indeed, make her life more difficult, though not daily, as “not every day has to be a challenge”. She clarified that some days are “just plain ordinary”, so she tries not to step over to the dark side. A piece of advice she would give to somebody whose life is constantly impacted by this disorder is to seek professional help.

    Rodica Afrăsinei is of the same opinion when it comes to professional help. She also claims that it is important to make use of our body’s resources when dealing with intense panic attacks. We cannot think rationally in those moments, so we need to rely on our senses. Consciously taking deep breaths and focusing on them helps.

    “We are reminding our body that it is safe and that we can control what is happening to us”.

    Rodica Afrăsinei, psychologist

    Seeking professional help isn’t easy. The first time I went to a psychologist was in the 9th grade. To be frank, I hardly remember what it was like back then. Apparently, I ended up ghosting her and never went back. The second time I sought professional help was a year after that, right after 10th grade began. My former high school’s counselor (we’ll call her Jean) had set up a tent in the school’s yard, meant to be a friendly place for people to hang out, if I recall correctly. I’ve always been socially anxious and found it difficult to start a conversation with people I was fond of. That day, I could not find the courage to talk to my favorite teacher (with whom I am still close), so somehow, I started talking to the counselor about it. We ended up talking about multiple things and I didn’t want to leave the tent. That was the beginning of my journey. I kept on seeing Jean for the rest of the school year. I didn’t fully trust her, but I did open up. Afterwards, the pandemic struck, and we stopped having in-person classes. As 12th grade was coming to an end, I randomly saw Jean near the school gate, and we chatted for a bit. She said I seemed to be doing great. She had no idea my senior year was when I realized I was feeling depressed and often had panic attacks. Starting May 2021, I began to genuinely open up about my life and what I had been struggling with. We kept seeing each other during my first semester of university and she helped me, until she couldn’t anymore. Not that she didn’t want to, it was just above her professional skills. It all happened so suddenly, and she agreed I needed better help. I had grown attached to her, even though we had a love-hate relationship throughout the years. Months went by and I was still on my own. As of a week and a half ago, I am seeing a new psychologist, but it’s hard. I wish she could read my mind, so I wouldn’t have to explain everything from the beginning. It’s exhausting and at times, I’m not even sure I can or want to go through this all over again.

    Regularly struggling with anxiety is difficult. It messes with your head, feelings and reality. It might as well ruin relationships. Some have it easier, some worse. For some, therapy is the key to being able to live a life as normal as possible. Others keep trying to find their key. I’m part of the latter, but hopefully I’ll soon be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    *the name given is a pseudonym, as the source wished to be anonymous

    If you feel depressed, experience panic attacks or anxiety and wish to talk to a specialist, call 0800 0800 20 for free – available 24/7 (Romania).