Due to health issues exacerbated by anxiety, I struggled to go places socially when my husband was alive. He was always my buffer, sitting between me and other people, supporting me when I was nervous. Encouraging me to forget about what other people might be thinking and just do what I needed to do.
After he passed away, I found it hard to go out socially. I started to avoid gatherings in church and even among family. I ventured out a little bit here and there, but I never stuck with any church for very long. In fact, for eleven years after he passed away, I hadn’t attended church regularly.
Then the pandemic and resulting shutdown made things worse. It gave me a reason to isolate myself from social gatherings.
Last year I found a job that I am still holding down successfully. It doesn’t require me to sit in groups except for training a couple of times a year. There is a monthly staff meeting but it is not required. I’ve never attended.
In November I returned to the church where I’d grown up and began working in children’s ministry. Now I had an excuse not to sit in church, because I was downstairs in children’s church. I still sat through the service on special occasions.
Over the years, I’ve become adept at choosing an outside seat, or a seat at the end of a table. My sister, understanding my need for not being in close contact with people, chooses to sit between me and anyone else as a buffer, not unlike my husband used to do.
When someone sits next to me, I start to tense up. I feel the flight or fight response and my body reacts accordingly. I start to sweat. I’m unable to focus on anything going on because I am worried about what the person beside me might be thinking. I could slip into a panic attack easily.
Along with that, I’ve also developed a fear of eating in front of people, even in my own home.
Social anxiety at its worst.
I’m not alone in this, I know. I’ve talked with a couple of other people who have similar responses to crowds.
I’ve sought counseling on this matter and am advised to take a moment before I enter a social scene. Do some deep breathing, visualize a peaceful place in my mind. Calm myself before I go into the building.
It helps, when I remember to do it.
The church didn’t have potlucks in the aftermath of the pandemic but recently started them again. A couple of weeks ago, there was a baby shower after the service. I wanted to stay, as it is one of the children from class who was becoming a big sister. I bought a gift. I asked a friend if I could sit at the end of the table. I put some food on my plate and ate. I talked with my friend and others around me as I ate.
I found that it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
Yesterday there was a potluck after church to welcome a new children’s ministry director. I needed to meet her, but I didn’t need to go to the potluck.
But I wanted to go. I made up a pan of baked beans (which didn’t turn out very well.). Before the dinner started, I prepared myself mentally to sit with people.
I found an open chair at the end of a table across from a lady who had been a friend of my parents. We talked.
I stood in line, forcing myself not to worry that there were people in front of and behind me. I put bits of food on my plate, and managed to eat most of it. I wanted to leave, but there was peanut butter cake on the dessert table. So I stayed and ate a piece. I introduced myself to the new director and talked a couple of minutes. Then I packed up my food and went home.
I’d like to say I’ve overcome my social anxiety. Instead I will say that I am overcoming it through the help of the Lord.
The following verses from Psalm 94 were in my devotions Saturday morning.
18 When I said, “My foot is slipping,”Psalm 94:18-19
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
19 When anxiety was great within me,
your consolation brought me joy.
I no longer have my husband there to physically support and buffer me from others, but God is ever present. His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways. I can rest assured that He will not leave me and is with me even in those moments when I feel that fight or flight reponse from being surrounded by people.
Attending these two events at church brought me joy. I hope to continue to fellowship as the summer goes on. Each time, I will grow stronger and more comfortable with the social settings.
I hope that my thoughts here today help someone who might be going through something similar. Maybe I am an oddity. I’d add LOL but it isn’t a laughing matter. It’s very real, and it’s debilitating.
But God can help us overcome. When I feel myself slipping into anxiety, He supports me with His presence. Focusing on a key Scripture or one of my tools that the counseling has taught me can keep my feet planted instead of running away. The more I put myself out there in public, the more confidence I will gain.