My Life in Research: Coping with Social Anxiety

In this post for Mental Health Awareness Month, current blogger Garry Mac talks about social anxiety, a condition that can be debilitating and which can have all kinds of effects on your PhD research. He’ll discuss his own experiences with the condition, dig into why ‘networking’ events can be crisis-inducing for those with social anxiety, and offer some tips and suggestions for how you might be able to find different ways of making connections.

My Experience of Social Anxiety

Photo by Angie on Pexels.com

I’ve been at the mercy of anxiety and depression since I was around 14. Since then, I’ve gone through a whole roller-coaster of ups and downs: masking it with alcohol, denial, avoidance, guilt and most of the time, fronting to everyone around me that I’m really confident. However, in my early 30s, after a series of traumatic events in childhood, adolescence and my mid-20s, I decided to admit to myself that I was struggling. Social activities left me feeling drained and spent, and that’s before I’d even make it to the event. I was wracked with a fundamental discomfort and fear about myself and my ability to engage with others; a highly irrational fear since I’m actually objectively good with others…

I went to the GP (as discussed in a previous post) and went on medication. I tried several forms of therapy to no avail, until I found an integrative practitioner who was engaging and challenging and who was vocal about the fact that he had similar experiences in his life. So began a long and unending journey to cope with my mental health.

One of the most severe problems I face is, I ultimately realised, social anxiety. Even though I enjoy people, events, and experiences of all kinds, I often get so ill from negative anticipation of events that I can become physically sick and mentally distraught/drained. I used to cancel things constantly and worked with my therapist and in my own personal work to overcome this gradually. Unfortunately, though, lockdown put me back to square one.

Without practice, those skills atrophy, and I found that as we were all suddenly racing to get back to “normal,” my anxieties had become profound again, and I’ve found myself cancelling important events. While my research is such that I’m able to do a lot remotely and still feel connected and like I’m participating, it nonetheless hinders me when I’m mentally and physically unable to attend events that I’d really like to attend!

I’m currently considering ways to mitigate this, including the development of some form of an access statement. This article will explain a little about social anxiety, talk about why networking is a difficult thing for socially anxious people, and suggest some points for consideration, including more on the access statement just mentioned.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What is Social Anxiety?

Let’s say you’re someone who enjoys new things, meeting interesting people, you want to be switched on and connected in whatever scene, community or milieu you take part in. You get fulfilment from other people and their stories, interests, achievements. You have your finger on the pulse so you like to attend arts and community events, so you can keep up to date, solidify connections and such.

For some reason, though, despite wanting to attend these events, every time they come up you feel overwhelming anxiety.

Most of us have jitters or butterflies before we attend an important event; a combination of nerves and excitement keeps us on our toes and can give us the energy we need to see us through. But for those of us who experience social anxiety, “jitters” is a huge understatement.

Social anxiety is when you feel uneasy and fearful about social engagements. These can be events where you’re thrown in at the deep end with a bunch of people you don’t know, but it can just as likely happen in groups of people you do know, maybe if it’s a different venue or scene than you’re used to. It results in all kinds of body-mind effects that can seriously impair your ability to prepare for the event and, in the worst case, can result in such overwhelming discomfort that it becomes easier and more suitable to cancel.

In the lead up to the event you’ve otherwise been looking forward to, you can experience overwhelming negative chatter in your thoughts, otherwise known as rumination. From Wikipedia:

‘Rumination is usually defined as repetitively focusing on the symptoms of distress, and on its possible causes and consequences. Extensive research on the effects of rumination, or the tendency to self-reflect, shows that the negative form of rumination interferes with people’s ability to focus on problem-solving and results in dwelling on negative thoughts about past failures. Evidence from studies suggests that the negative implications of rumination are due to cognitive biases, such as memory and attentional biases, which predispose ruminators to selectively devote attention to negative stimuli.’

This incessant onslaught of negative thinking can result in tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking and a whole host of other lovely physical symptoms. Perhaps this comic I drew several years back will help to explain it:

‘Suddenly Something Really Interesting’ – Copyright Garry Mac 2012

In the worst cases, you can be filled with such fear that it can lead to agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an ‘extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult’ (definition from Google). It can result in you not leaving your home for days or weeks, rarely seeing other people and, effectively, implementing some kind of lockdown on yourself. (It’s interesting to me that during lockdown, almost everyone got a taste of what that’s like. I have little faith that it will change perceptions of social anxiety in the long run, though…)

Social Anxiety and Networking

For many people who experience social anxiety, any kind of ‘networking’ event can be an absolute minefield. These events are often designed based upon an outdated notion of how people interact with one another, and is often incredibly corporate, emerging as it does in business with the baby boomers of the 70s and 80s. I would argue that it finds its model even further back, in such events as literary salons, medical demonstrations, and of course, the university. It is a model of interaction that is fraught with difficulties for the socially anxious (and those with neurodivergence or other mental health issues, which means a lot of us), and which privileges extroversion and an outgoing nature. It is essentially an elitist, survival-of-the-fittest social-obstacle course where those who find it easiest to talk about themselves and their work with others “win.” Those who feel no embarrassment or shame in walking up and introducing themselves to others might find that these events are incredibly fulfilling.

For the socially anxious, though, when you’re faced with a crowded room, none of whom you know, in a structure that is entirely freeform and designed to encourage individuals to ‘make the first move,’ it’s entirely possible to dissemble and spin out, the myriad possibilities for threat and/or embarrassment multiplying due to the sheer numbers in the room. As the earlier linked article says, it tends to suit ‘gregarious’ people; often extroverted, they thrive on being open and accessible, making connections and actively building their network of connections. For the rest of us, it can be a nightmare.

Happy people, happily networking. Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

We might feel disappointed that we didn’t strike up conversation, or keep replaying that moment where you stuck your head through a huddle of people and dropped in a choice contribution only to realise you’re in the wrong group and these people know nothing about your work/research, nor do they want to. In the worst cases, fears of these potential mishaps might make us so ill that we can’t attend the event, either honestly pulling out due to mental health or, more likely, making something up that offers an excuse but doesn’t reveal your inherent “weakness.”

Connecting in Other Ways

Okay, so what if this kind of networking doesn’t work for you? I would suggest that, first and foremost, you accept the difficulties you face. We’re all different, it’s what makes the human race so infinitely interesting! When extroverted, gregarious go-getters design networking events, they’re doing so on the basis of what works for them, what the received wisdom is, how it’s always been done before etc. Accept that the event might not have been designed with you in mind, and work out how you’ll tackle it from there.

Outside of these kinds of events, though, there are multiple other ways in which you can find connections with fellow PhD researchers. One of these is social media; making connections on Facebook or Twitter based upon your research interests is a great way of increasing your network, with the plus side that, because it’s non-local, you’ll connect with researchers from all kinds of backgrounds.

Another is to build up community based around Zoom hangouts, weekly or monthly in-person meet ups (with smaller groups) or directly through your HEI, most of whom offer multiple ways of connecting and staying in touch.

With regards to dealing with this barrier in the future, I’d like to direct you to the website of Graham Macleod Johnson. They tackle neurodivergence and barriers in a direct and accessible way, with webcomics, a programme called Radical Wellness and, importantly, an access statement that defines ways in which employers, supervisors, clients and the like can be aware of their needs and work with them.

Copyright Graham Macleod Johnson 2022

This kind of radical openness about mental health is rare, and it is usually incumbent on the neurodivergent person to make those moves, but Graham’s work is illuminating enough to hopefully suggest ways in which you might be able to go about that yourself. Ultimately, the path I’m choosing to adopt in the future is one where I’m open and honest about these difficulties I face, and hopefully try to work with organisations to create better environments for neurodivergent people and those with mental health issues. And I’d probably be recommending Graham’s work as a great example of how a two-way dialogue can be opened up on this topic.

Feel free to comment on your own experiences of social anxiety, tips for coping and suggestions for improving access in the University or workplace. We’re interested to hear how these articles impact on you, and we’re always happy to keep that dialogue going in the form of guest articles, interviews etc. If you have something to say on the topic of mental health and/or social anxiety, let us know!

Garry (Mac) McLaughlin is a 3rd year PhD researcher in Comic Studies at the University of Dundee with co-supervision at the University of St. Andrews. His project explores queer temporality in comics and graphic novels, researching trans-temporal narrative mechanics within the systems of comics. It is practice-based and he is currently working on the key output, a comic called PRAXIS. He is from and resides in Glasgow, UK and has lived here for most of his life. Find him on Instagram as @queertempo and see progress on the comic at @praxis_comic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s