During my first two years at university, my anxiety got worse than ever before. I’ve had social anxiety a majority of my life, although I wasn’t always aware of it, but it had never truly prevented me from living normally. Four years ago, before going to university, I went to live in Italy for a semester to improve my language skills. I started to notice I was overly shy and uncomfortable in so many social situations, but I think I just blamed it on the fact that I wasn’t Italian and that I couldn’t speak the language very well. I struggled eating in public and cooking in front of others, but again I never considered it could be anything other than shyness, simply because no one had ever talked to me about anxiety, and honestly I wasn’t even sure what the word meant. So since I didn’t have anything or anyone I could relate to, I figured it was all just part of my personality and that I’d be that way forever.
When I moved to England for uni, things changed drastically. I was scared of the same things I had been in Italy, but everything was worse, to the point where it was preventing me from living a normal student life. I became absolutely terrified of people; the idea of talking to people I didn’t know was so frightening, and I would always avoid any kind of new human interaction. Once I’d found my few friends at the beginning of first year, I didn’t want to meet anyone new. Well, that’s not entirely true; I ideally did want to meet new people, I just couldn’t.
I was unable to join societies; talking to the different committee members was too intimidating and I knew I wouldn’t be able to show up for the first social meeting, so I spent two years not being involved in anything I knew I would find interesting. I used to also skip on feedback sessions with my professors or on academic help, because I had no faith in myself or my writing skills, and I couldn’t bear the thought of someone else reading my work in front of me, and commenting negatively on it.
I started being afraid of walking alone in town or on campus, as there was a high chance I would bump into someone I know. I’m aware many people aren’t fans of small talk, but for someone suffering from social anxiety, it can be our worst nightmare. My favourite days became the rainy days where I could burry myself in my oversized coat and under its hood, with my scarf covering the lower half of my face and my eyes staring straight at the ground, to avoid any kind of unwanted eye contact. Most days I would come home after attending my lessons and burst into tears as soon as I closed my bedroom door, on the one hand because it enabled me to externalised the bottled up feelings of anxiety and stress I’d been feeling all day, but also out of pain and frustration at the fact that I felt this way.
I was also unable to food shop by myself, especially in first year, so I would order my food online or tag along when my flatmates went to the shop on campus. I managed to go to that shop by myself a total of three times that year, and each time was an amazing victory. I was scared of bumping into someone, and I felt like everyone would stare at me and judge me, that they would mock me, what I was buying, and what I would later be eating.
Eating. Now that’s something that’s made me shed many tears. I never truly understood why one of my biggest fears became eating and cooking in front of others, especially people I didn’t know or feel fully comfortable around. During my first year at university, I lived in a flat with 7 other people, and we all shared the same kitchen. I didn’t really know how to cook; I knew how to make pasta and add some ready-made sauce, fry an egg, cook some dry meat in a frying pan, and make a ham and cheese sandwich (RIP my non-vegan days). I knew I maybe didn’t have the healthiest of habits and that I was severely lacking in cooking skills, but I wasn’t the only one: a majority of us didn’t know how to cook properly, and it’s understandable.
My constant shame meant that I started to avoid going into the kitchen to eat when I knew others were around, and would simply stay locked in my room, the only place where I knew I’d be safe. My two closest flatmates would naturally make me feel more comfortable to come out and eat, but whenever they weren’t around or were back in their hometown for the weekend, I wouldn’t leave my room, and therefore would not eat. We had private bathrooms which meant I could drink water from the sink, and nibble on the few nuts and cereal bars I had in my room, but I would spend my day hungry and crying because I felt like such a failure. I felt useless; what was the point of me being around if I didn’t contribute to the world, and failed to succeed in the simplest of tasks.
Of course, everyone’s experiences with social anxiety are different, and these are just specific, personal examples and feelings. If you experience/have experienced some different triggering situations, I’d love to read about them in the comments! As for a majority of mental illness, if not all, it isn’t fully understood and so we don’t always receive appropriate support. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends how they are feeling, and how you could help. Try not to automatically judge them or get angry if they cancel plans or seem distant, just let them know that you’re there for them to talk to if they need it, in a safe and non-judgemental environment. Anxiety can make you feel like the world is judging you and that everyone hates you, so focus on spreading love, always!
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