When Fear is Other People: Healing from Social Anxiety
For some of us, Sartre’s famous quote, “Hell is other people,” is absolutely true.
Social Phobia, also called Social Anxiety Disorder, is a condition plaguing some women who find social situations to be a hotbed of triggers for panic. For those of us with the diagnosis, the fear we encounter when triggered by social interactions is so intense, frequent, and crippling that it takes on the role of being a serious “symptom” – an emergence from the underground soul stream of our lives, which bubbles up with urgency and force to disrupt our surface world.
Many of us don’t address symptoms until they have become so obvious and arresting that we literally cannot proceed with our lives until we take the time and care to resolve them. For many of us in recovery, our social fear reaches a crisis point when we achieve a little bit of stable sobriety. We discover, with mounting dread, that substance use has been heavily involved with subduing our social fears. Without drugs, we may have no idea how to relate with others and still remain calm.
Fear is highly physiological, involving a chain of bodily reactions, the triggering of which is not under our conscious control. We cannot reproach ourselves for having fear because there is absolutely nothing we can do to “just get over” how we are wired. Fear is one of the most basic instincts that we possess, and it is directly related to the fundamental operating system installed into our biocomputers at birth, whose prime directive, in essence, is “keep this body alive”.
Like with all anxiety disorders, when we look at what it takes to heal from social phobia we need to understand that the problem and its solutions lie entwined with this core program. The body fills with fear when some danger is threatening that prime directive. Whatever the danger is – real, distorted, imagined, it doesn’t matter – the brain sounds the alarm and sends the body through a cascade of hormonal reactions that sets the body up for addressing the threat.
A woman who has this flavor of anxiety showing up in her life is exquisitely cued up to the deeply real dangers of social living. Our primate cousins in the animal kingdom, you may notice, live in groups and are highly socially oriented – we are no different. Inclusion, belonging and acceptance by a group are extremely relevant to our survival, especially when we are young and vulnerable, when we can literally not survive without the love of our group.
Those of us who felt only conditionally accepted by our families, schools, communities, caregivers and authorities, who experienced being abandoned, severely criticized, judged, shamed, humiliated or in other ways marginalized if we did not stay sharply focused on what these powerful people wanted from us, are naturally attuned to the possibility that we could be ejected from the tribe at any moment if we do something wrong.
With that type of background and sensitivity, we are also going to be highly attuned to any messages that say that we are inadequate, or not good enough in some way. Love, which includes a sense of value, a sense of being known as a good, worthy being, is an important ingredient of survival. As social creatures, we need to feel good about who we are and we need others to help us know that. If this basic feedback loop of “Hi adorable being, We see you, you are lovable and we love you and you belong and we will keep you safe because you are one of us and we love and value you, we want you here” was missing, distorted or just plain not explicit enough in our families, our survival brains may be quite worried about this.
Whatever our background, in the here and now the cascade of fear responses always starts with a catalyst, something that our lightning-quick danger software determines to be a threat. For the socially phobic woman, the threat is often of social interactions that result in humiliation, degradation, shame, embarrassment. Often subconscious, the trigger can be a sight, a smell, a sound, a small detail beneath awareness, and not infrequently, a thought. Since the body cannot often tell the difference between what is “really happening” and what is only taking place in the mind, a thought (especially if our experience has taught us to deem such a thing likely to happen) can be the threat.
Next step, the physiology reacts, quickly and without asking “us” first. The adrenal chemical epinephrine is released into our bloodstream, speeding up our bodily processes so we will be sharp, on our toes, and ready to correct the mistake that was threatening to expel us from the circle of society’s love. We become stressed: epinephrine raises blood sugar levels in our bodies, so our muscles are energized and we can use them to clamp down on whatever unwanted behavior we have to stop. Our bodies begin to tremble with all this ready-to-use energy, as we build tension like a coiled spring. Epinephrine increases our heart rate, pounding our hearts to pump us full of extra blood, which shows up as a red tinge, or flush, in our faces and necks. As our heart rates increase, our lungs gear up as well, to make sure all that pounding blood is oxygenated, and so we take more breaths per minute. All this extra breathing and heart pounding may create pain in our chests.
Can you relate to that experience? Do you have a tendency to get panicky, lightheaded, out of breath, frozen and shut down in social settings? Does this hit you too often, too fast? Do you know that dreaded, powerless feeling of being unable to calm yourself back down? Do you know the spiraling, compounding nature of getting into a state where you live in fear of your own fear?
If so it is important to know that mercifully, how to calm down, once riled up, is highly learnable and Villa Kali Ma can help you do this. It is highly learnable because it is actually also a part of your inborn nature –a program that says, “danger is over, so go back to feeling good”. Just as nature wants us to survive, nature has set us up with all the internal equipment to feel ease, peace, and pleasure, to feel open, relaxed, creative, meditative, joyful, socially connected, loving and happy.
At Villa Kali Ma we offer many therapies designed to help with just this – yoga, gardening, massage, expressive arts, sound healing, group work, breath work, somatic experiencing, cooking, neurofeedback, beach walks, and more. These activities fire up the natural pleasure and relaxation system in the body, so that you can feel what it’s like to have your birthright of peace and ease working properly for once, and without substances. While they don’t always work instantaneously – though wonderfully, sometimes they do – these practices are sustainable, and become reliable with a smaller investment of effort than we might imagine. With some dedication, humility to be a beginner, open hearted willingness and the diligence to keep at it, these often enjoyable practices quickly help the body and nervous system rewire and reset so that this part of our biocomputer software works again.
Getting good at calming back down is really most of the battle for people with anxiety, and often the most effective, kind and loving entry point. However, working with the original wound, the fact that we get so riled up, so intensely and so frequently around the topic of social interaction, is also important for resolving a pattern of social phobia.
One big piece in the healing of our social wounds is to find true inclusion amongst people who are capable of the privilege of being close to us. Loving community heals all wounds and is especially helpful for socially phobic women – to find a place amongst people who really, truly, deeply and unconditionally hold positive regard for us. We need to find those people who can relate and have compassion for us, who are heart-opened enough to hold love for us as we are without any expectation or need for us to be radically different from who we are right now and by nature. The experience of creating, possibly for the first time, a safe family, or tribe, heals the frightened part within us that knew we would not make it in this world without the strength, protection, love, affection, and company of a group of beings that love us and want us to be there with them.
At Villa Kali Ma we strive to create such a family of warm, nonintrusive inclusion, and we invite you to come share yourself in your own time, when you are ready. Please know that within the walls of VKM you will find a space where you can unfold yourself imperfectly, wounded and confused as you are, and that these vulnerabilities in you will not be judged, condemned, rejected or ridiculed, but rather welcomed and cared for with the respect, love, and delight which you have always deserved.
For women who have felt that hell is other people, it will be an important part of your soul journey to discover that when you find the right other people, other people can also be a source of heaven! We warmly encourage you to come build the foundations of a loving healing community here with us.