Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Madhu Rajaraman, a writer, digital strategist, and (occasional) stand-up and spoken word artist living in Arlington, Va.
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As a teen and young adult with social anxiety, I often found myself making constant mental calculations in mundane situations that are effortless for most people. This habit threatened to hinder my personal and career potential.
Ever suspicious, my mind held a magnifying glass to social interactions, scanning every intonation and facial expression for hostility, judgment, and rejection where there was none. I developed a habit of rejecting myself on others’ behalf, before they had the opportunity to do so. Sometimes this was in the form of declining well-intentioned social invitations, or choosing not to pursue hobbies and career options I was otherwise interested in.
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but in journalism school I struggled to make it through the most elementary of reporter tasks. I found myself making outline after outline to prepare for phone calls, practicing in my head, sometimes hanging up several times and having to start over. I spent a portion of one assignment nauseous in my car because I was so nervous just to knock on strangers’ doors and ask them questions. I managed to complete the story — and even won a small award for it — but the experience left me so burned out that I essentially abandoned all hope of success in the field.
The physical experience is characterized by nausea and a racing heart, and especially a sensation of the throat closing up. I may know internally that I have valuable, intelligent things to say and contribute, but they get stuck and don’t make it out.
It’s like being chased on a hamster wheel of impostor syndrome and excessive self awareness, with an Internet troll behind you saying, “It’s not real, and you’re not good enough.”
I will probably replay conversations from days or weeks ago in my mind, mentally berating myself for not saying this or not doing that. Sometimes I’ll avoid socializing with people, unless I know them extremely well.
The funny (and frustrating) part of this particular strain of anxiety is that by definition, avoidance itself is the coping mechanism.
I’ve since found healthier ones such as writing and, unexpectedly, performing stand-up comedy and spoken word poetry that addresses these issues directly rather than avoiding them. As it turns out, people are much kinder than my brain gives them credit for.
Believe me, I’m aware it’s irrational. It takes a great deal of effort to make yourself aware of destructive thoughts, and to consciously, actively stop them before they plant themselves in the psyche.