This is post 5 of sharing my experience in group therapy (cognitive-behavioural therapy, or CBT) for social anxiety. Check out previous posts below!
- Session 1: recognizing the sensations, thoughts, and behaviours of anxiety
- Session 2: introducing cognitive distortions
- Session 3: countering cognitive distortions
- Session 4: introducing exposure therapy (aka facing your fears)
Things have gotten really, really… real. And hard. Really, really hard. And scary. And exhausting.
[Edited 07/12/18 to add]
A special note for any former group members who may stumble upon this series…
Hi there 🙂 If you haven’t read any of the other posts, let me assure you that I have never revealed any personal or confidential information about you or even shared your stories anonymously. I may have made brief references here and there to “group members” as an anonymous whole, but never in specific or revealing detail. This series has been strictly and diligently focused on my own experience and thoughts. I truly hope that in writing it, I did not do anything to make you feel that I breached the trust of our group. Good luck to all of you and thank you so much for being so brave and supportive. xoxoxo
Sessions 5 and 6
The basic premise behind exposure therapy is to face your triggers as much and as often as possible (in a structured way) so that they become less and less distressing over time. You’re inoculating yourself against anxiety.
The guidelines for effective exposure exercises follow the acronym RSVP. R: Repeatable. S: Stay (in the situation). V: Varied. P: Planned.
I’ve been taking this program in stride so far, with a little humour and overall a pretty positive attitude. But exposure therapy broke through my defences and cracked my resolve.
Last week, in session 6, we did our first in-session exposure exercise, which involved doing small talk in alternating pairs, three minutes per pair.
I thought this would be no big deal. It’s just small talk.
I was wholly unprepared for how much anxiety I would feel. My body betrayed me first, half-focused on tensing up all its muscles and half-determined to make me tremble myself into a million shattered pieces.
What is going on? I kept thinking. This is just small talk.
I felt… deflated. Terrible. Exhausted. As we were debriefing afterward as a group, something inside me just… broke. And the tears came. I tried to control them but I wasn’t able to participate for the last 15 minutes of group.
I kept thinking, I *actually* have social anxiety. It isn’t just a fluke that I’m here, or some intellectual exercise, as I’ve been approaching it. I thought I was further along than this…
It’s hard for me to articulate why this was so emotional for me. I guess I realized in a very potent way that it will take more than cognitive restructuring to get over this.
The following week was very low. I did my exposure exercise (calling my therapist after-hours and leaving a voicemail every day), but only half-heartedly and begrudgingly. I spent a lot of time thinking that I will never really get over my social fears.
It wasn’t until today, in session 7, that I started to feel a little stronger again. I think I needed to spend some time sitting with the grief and pain of realizing that, no, I haven’t found a “secret path” around social anxiety all this time–I’ve just been finding ways of functioning that don’t trigger my anxiety (read: basement office with a job that only requires emailing clients–no calls or meetings).
And for the sake of normalizing my experience, we were told to expect the second part of the program to be very challenging. I guess I underestimated how true that would be for me personally.
But I’m ready for the next part of the program now. I have exposures planned every day of the coming week, and they mostly involve phone calls. (Some of you will be on the receiving end of some very awkward voicemail messages, so brace yourselves. You know who you are.)
Why phone calls? It’s one of my biggest fears, even though I’m not really sure why. I’ve lost at least one friendship because of my phone phobia. The friend in question was a lively extrovert who loved to talk on the phone with her friends and didn’t really like texting and email. We tried to make it work but it was a constant struggle and I felt perpetually guilty for disappointing her by not returning or answering her calls very often. I didn’t have the insight or language at the time to explain why it was so hard for me. Eventually, she stopped answering my emails, and, of course, I never called to ask why… but I think she gave up on me. This was years ago, but it’s a painful memory of how hard it was to function back when I didn’t even know social anxiety was a real condition.
In other news, I have my 5k event this Saturday, which is going to be a huge exposure exercise in its own right. I’ve already started processing my anxious thoughts and trying to manage my anxiety.
I’ve also finally chosen an anxiety mantra, which we were asked to think about last week. Here’s mine:
The only way out is through.
I wish this entry were a bit peppier and jokier and more upbeat, but that would not be authentic… Things are just rather heavier these days.
Here’s to facing our fears one day (or moment) at a time.