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Social Anxiety: Escaping the stress of summer on the old road to nowhere.

Updated: Jun 8

There's this old road that we've recently been walking. It's the kind of road that is no longer used, overgrown and unkempt, it is just a stone’s throw away from being reclaimed by nature and turned back into a field. It’s a place of peace, solitude and space away from the overcrowded beaches and other vantage points that are out of bounds for us now that the first hints of summer are underway. People understand that summer is a busy time in beautiful places, they know that crowds are not fun. Even the media draws on this solitude discourse by pitching out headings such as ‘Beat the crowds this summer’, or ‘Ten beautiful lesser know places’. Yet, what appears to be missing from this is any deeper understanding about the difference between seeking solitude for personal preference, and those of us who do so because we have social anxiety. For many, busy places are perhaps a mild to moderate discomfort or something we have to get through. There are also people who immediately click with you when you mention you have social anxiety - it’s not uncommon. Yet outside of this, in the wider world and its norms, understandings of social anxiety fall flat, written off as clinical, boring or just ‘something that autistic people have’.

It’s been a while since I wrote about social anxiety in any depth. If I’m honest I’ve tried to step away from it to convince myself that it’s not a big thing in my life. It becomes easier to do that when your escapes from this world are things that take you to quiet places - be it in your mind or out there in the wild. Yet this last week was intense. We needed to travel for things that needed to be done - my car was due its MOT and service, the van needed a new part fitting, and we wanted to see my brother and sister-in-law who is expecting a baby this summer. There were things that involved going out into the mire of madness, away from the comfort and familiarity of home and our regular north Pembrokeshire haunts. The south of the county is completely different. Its roads run rampant with traffic and its beauty becomes congealed with crowds. I swear, last week we saw a queue forming to join a simple walkway around a lake. And I felt it. The racing heart, the embarrassment, setting my hood over my face and trying to find a space to hold my eyes away from the curious fleeting glances that come from being different, awkward - the polar opposite to Instagram-style confidence.

Personally, I don’t believe that social anxiety ever completely goes away. Contrary to the belief that it is an illness, a disorder or whatever other clinical definition is pinned upon it, I don’t believe it can be cured. Having lived with social anxiety for more than twenty-five years and knowing many others who also live with it, I’ve seen the way that people have been treated by this rampant world that we live in. I’ve done the therapies, I’ve tried the medication, I’ve been an inpatient in both my childhood and adult life. In more recent years, I’ve read self-help books, done digital detoxes and tranced myself out doing affirmations in a mirror. It’s not just my own experiences. I’ve witnessed the distress that people feel when they have to pretend and mask through things that make them uncomfortable - and when it goes well it’s three cheers from the society that made them that way. Despite all of this, social anxiety hasn’t gone away for me and I’ve now accepted that it will always be a part of my life. I know the mainstream discourse around it is neoliberal, about self-management and improvement, overcoming our problems independently, being better versions of ourselves and then coming home in a haze to post that photo that tells the world we’re living our best lives. Yet what I really want to say, is that I’ve honestly found that my own social anxiety is less of an illness, and more a mixture of my mind and its boundaries calling out in response to sensory, situational and social overwhelm. I’ve explained more about these three things here .

Last week, all three of these things were on high alert. The sensory experience of the noise, the traffic and its fumes, the glances from people, the continuously being on edge feeling the buzz and energy of so many people at once that made me shiver. The social rules and norms that were so familiar yet also so alien to me and J, when needing to be polite and speak to people about the weather or the area or answer ‘Are you enjoying your holiday?’, with ‘Yes thanks, hope you are too’ because it was easier to pretend and move on than elaborate. The situational aspect, knowing that all of our usual escape places were out of bounds and too busy in the here and now, but also knowing that this would not last at this intensity and it was just for that week (at least we hope!). For me, social anxiety is all of these things and not always at peak intensity - it’s taken me a while to understand it from this perspective rather than trying to mask and muddle through. But honestly, taking this approach has really helped me to reframe my own social anxiety - seeing it as a sliding scale of these three things in response to this wild world. I also know that social anxiety is deeply personal and want to add that if any of the more clinical or traditional things work for someone then that’s great. Admittedly, I probably took a lot from both DBT and MBT therapy that stays with me to this day. But all of this over the last week was what brought us to the old road. As the sun has begun to take its place in performing the lure of summer, drawing in the crowds and drawing out the rest of us, finding this old road has been a sanctuary.

The road itself is not a conventional beauty spot - in fact, quite the opposite. Decayed and crumpled, it was at one point a farm track but today it’s rarely used. It’s so quiet down there. Last weekend, the road gave us the privacy to talk through our anxieties. A conversation about awkwardness after I'd briefly ended up at a mate's house minus the mate, instead with someone I didn't know and who didn't know me. As we turned another corner in the road, it brought the conversation onto social class and who we are. As the sun beat down upon our shoulders with the hedgerows tall and our shadows behind us, we wandered through the wildflowers sharing our experiences of growing up in mixed social groups, a confusion of norms and expectations. Taking the pizza from one household's table was ok, but in another, the head of the house needed to eat first. My own experience of going on a single date with an upper-middle-class boy as a teen, starting in the local Liquid nightclub, ending in a manor house sat around a banquet table with silver dome plates and the entire family laughing at the scruffy tiger who had come to tea. Despite growing up in completely different parts of the UK, the stories came out the same. The geography may have been different but we were both wandering the same trails back then. The masking and pretending to be posh and well-behaved in one house, to sharing fags and cider with the dad in another. Then came our interests. How not being wealthy pins us down into one category, while our hobbies belong elsewhere. J said to me, 'It's just societal stereotyping' - I agreed. The conversation continued at this pace as the old road continued to wind its way down to the junction.

Having this space to walk and talk without feeling on edge, or needing to manage a conversation with a stranger was cathartic and liberating. A place where we could be our weird unconventional selves talking about weird things and memories of youth. A road of sanctuary, solitude and at times, deeper understandings about who we are and the places where we’ve been. And so, as summer arrives and many more places become unavailable, it is this road that we’ll return to. The best places are those where we can be our true selves, and often it is the places that are discarded, decayed and unwanted that bring those of us in need of solitude the greatest freedom. More often than not, these places are not featured in travel guides or news articles. They are often closer to home than we would think.


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