Imagine you’re walking down the street and every person is staring at you. Laughter is heard from behind, and you know it’s in some way related to you. From how you look, to the way you walk, everyone is there to judge. This makes you nervous so you begin to overheat, sweat and your face turns red. If others didn’t notice you before they sure will now with how much you stand out. An old friend comes into view and says hi, but you only give a slight smile in return because you don’t know what to say. They wouldn’t want to talk to you anyways if they knew how awkward you are. You walk faster to your destination, wishing you were in the comfort of your own home.

This is just a minor scenario of what it can feel like to have social anxiety, also called social phobia. I’ve been very shy my whole life, but was only diagnosed with social anxiety a few years ago. It can be so debilitating that one stays at home, not for fear of leaving the house, but for fear of the people they may encounter outside of it.

I spent almost a whole year of university in my room and had to drop all my classes for fear of attending them. One of my lowest moments anxiety-wise was when I was too scared to leave the house to buy toilet paper. I spent a day mentally beating myself up for not being able to do a simple task, and the next day I spent getting the courage to ask a housemate to get toilet paper for me. She was kind and understanding about it, but that didn’t stop me from hanging my head low in defeat while handing her the money. I was suffering from depression at the same time, but it was anxiety in this situation that affected me most.

The next year I didn’t go to school at all, accepting the fact that I was a failure. Recovery was not easy, as the simplest social situations terrified me. Talking on the phone? Not going to happen. Pushing a cart and paying for groceries? No way. Walking to the mailbox? Not if there’s a chance of anyone seeing me. My thoughts consumed me in circumstances that other people wouldn’t give a second thought to.

I was talking to a therapist regularly during that year off school and she recommended group therapy. The idea of that seemed nearly impossible for me to do, but six months later I found myself in a social anxiety group. This was a three-month program with homework involved in which we were tasked with gradual exposures. We ranked our social fears from what made us least anxious to most, and we did our best to conquer them. We put ourselves in these uncomfortable situations and did this repeatedly until our anxiety went down at least a bit. For each exposure we filled out a sheet explaining the situation, our thoughts and feelings, and what the outcome was. While it was tedious, it was also very helpful in changing how we went about future social interactions.

A couple months after the program ended, I realized that the therapy truly did help. I could shop for clothes and purchase them without trepidation. I could walk my dog around the block, not worried if anyone was outside. I was ready to go back to school, and I did.

Going outside of your comfort zone is of the utmost importance in overcoming social anxiety or any other fear. Being comfortable is what is safe to us, but not the best decision. If we don’t make ourselves uncomfortable we’ll never expand our comfort level. There’s no need to go from hiding from the world to public speaking, but taking small steps are what will help most. No matter how uncomfortable you feel in a situation, your level of anxiety will go down. That’s so important to remember when you’re in these situations. The discomfort does not last long and you actually feel accomplished afterward.

If you suffer from social anxiety or any other fear, remember that the only way to overcome it is to leave your comfort zone. There’s no need to throw yourself in—unless you really want to—but take a step or two. Get expert advice if needed, like I did. It feels so liberating to be able to do what I want and not be limited by my fears. I still have more work to do in expanding my comfort zone, and maybe I always will, but I welcome that feeling now. It lets me know that I’m helping myself become the woman I always wanted to be, but was too scared to make it a reality. I feel like I have so many more doors open in life, and that feeling is worth all the anxiety I went through to get here.

by Michelle Balge
image: Young woman running away via Shutterstock