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I am a 29 year old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and also suffer from general anxiety and panic attacks. I have only been recently diagnosed but have been ill since I was a teenager. I tend to have mixed-manic episodes, hence the name of my blog. I am a regular guest blogger for Black Dog Tribe. I am not a mental health professional. I am just writing from my own experiences with mental illness. If you wish to use any of my blog content please contact me at lababup@gmail.com. Visit me on twitter @lababup

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Social anxiety and the dreaded awkward silence

Another weekend, another hotbed of social anxiety. For many people, socialising is the best part of their week. For me it leads to all sorts of worries. Who will I end up talking to? What will they say? How will I respond? Will they like me? Will I say something boring or stupid? Aghh I have nothing to say, what will I talk about?!

I asked somewhat jokingly on twitter: ‘Shame that my social anxiety won’t leave me alone. What is the worst that could happen?’. Of course, as someone also pointed out, the worst that could happen is EVERYTHING.  There are just too many possibilities to consider. I could fall over or accidentally injure someone. I could say something ridiculous and be laughed at. Someone might say something I strongly disagree with and we end up arguing. I could be exposed for the fraud that I am. People could judge how I am acting and reject me, or worse, see the real me and not want to ever see me again. 

Too much imagination together with excessive rumination really is disabling. I think that this is the root of all anxiety. If you can think of every single thing that could happen you are bound to come up with the worst possible scenario and then worry about it materialising. Once you have that worst case scenario in your head it is hard to get rid of it and pretend it is not a very real possibility. 

I think that social scenarios are one of the most anxiety provoking situations just because they are so complex and so there are many bad possibilities that could happen. You just never know how the conversation is going to flow and how someone will react to what you are saying. Combine this unpredictability with an almost pathological desire to be accepted and you end up with a social anxiety disorder. You spend your whole time trying to imagine what someone will do and say just to make sure that they will accept and like you. In the end you can’t enjoy socialising anymore because you are too paralysed by fear.

I think that one of the worst things that can happen in a social situation is the dreaded awkward silence. I know this sounds daft, because silence can’t exactly kill you. However, the level of discomfort that I feel with this is intense. It may be because I take it as a sign that I am boring and they don’t want to talk to me anymore. Or that maybe they don’t feel like they have anything in common with me.  I used to try and fill the silence with incessant chatter but with hindsight this probably annoyed people more. However, the last couple of years, since I became really ill and withdrew from social contact for a while, I lost the ability to fill the silence with gibberish. I ran out of stuff to say and lost all my confidence. Unfortunately this means that the dreaded awkward silence has become more dreaded than ever. I take it as confirmation that I have nothing interesting to say.

In addition if you suffer from some sort of breakdown like I did, your whole world becomes focused on your mental illness and so you end up not really thinking about much else. When you socialise you talk to people about what you have been up to. As all I have been up to usually revolves around my mental health and mental health is a taboo subject, this further paralyses my ability to talk and fill up those silences. 

I know that awkward silences shouldn’t be that big of a deal but I am filled with fear when I think of them. This fear prevents me going out and being like a ‘normal’ person. As socialising is something we are expected to do for prolonged periods every day, having a social anxiety disorder is really disabling. It means that the simplest tasks which most people find easy become impossible. And it doesn’t help is someone asks: what is the worst thing that can happen? After all, I can think of EVERYTHING.

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