I have been ill my entire life and did not realize it until a few years ago. Before then, I was never taught what social anxiety is or that it can be alleviated.
This is what it was like for me to have social anxiety: When I was in the same room as anyone else, my body would react as if I were in grave danger. Take, for example, a Sunday School lesson. If the teacher randomly called on me to comment in class, I would react in an unusual way. As I felt everyone’s eyes on me, my heart started beating fast, my face got hot, my body trembled, and I worried excessively about other people’s perceptions of me. What I did not know at the time was that these feelings and thoughts were some of the signs of panic attacks.
These panic attacks happened much too often. The fear of what others thought of me was just too much for my body to handle. I looked for safety in being alone. Growing up, my social skills were not up to snuff. Yet despite this giant weakness, I was able to accept a call from our Heavenly Father to serve a full-time mission.
As you can imagine, when serving as a missionary, I was highly socially anxious. There were many occasions when I couldn’t bring myself to teach or discuss much during my visits with people alongside my different companions. My self-esteem was too low—I didn’t think I had anything valuable to contribute to the conversations going on around me, and when I spoke, I felt self-conscious and awkward. I felt like a burden instead of a blessing to my companions.
One day my companion and I met a lovely young couple and started teaching them. This couple was easy to love; they were so nice and friendly. When I was with them, I miraculously participated actively in the conversation, asked questions, shared my testimony, and taught boldly. I did not feel anxious around them at all.
What made my anxiety disappear while I was with this couple? I pondered about it for a few weeks before solving this puzzle. It was so unlike me to be fearless, so what changed?
After talking about it with my therapist, I realized what had happened. In therapy, I was taught skills to learn how to love myself. Instead of focusing on my shortcomings, I learned to give myself credit for the things I was doing well. Also, I did not need to compare myself to others, since I have been given unique gifts and I do not have to act the same way others do, nor do I need to progress at the same rate that others do. Sometimes progress from one day to the next means feeling happy for just one minute longer than I did the previous day. With skills like these under my belt, I have been able to manage my anxiety much better than before. Instead of feeling like a constant failure, I have learned to love myself more often.
Along with that self-love, my love for this couple gave me the courage to confidently teach them. I cared about them so much; I wanted so badly for them to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and how it could bless their lives. By using coping strategies and focusing on love for the people I was with, I learned to push aside my fears and be free from the anxiety I typically felt in social situations.
Jesus is the ultimate example of love. He has taught me so much about what it means to have the courage to leave my comfort zone by focusing on other people’s needs. Elder David A. Bednar explained that the manner in which we can follow the Savior’s example is “in the power to discern the suffering of other people when we ourselves are suffering; in the ability to detect the hunger of others when we are hungry; and in the power to reach out and extend compassion for the spiritual agony of others when we are in the midst of our own spiritual distress” (“A Christlike Character,” New Era, October 2017).
I can testify of this truth. My anxiety has been an enormous obstacle, but even in the midst of my distress, the Lord has led me to people who need my help. I still have anxiety, but it does not interfere with my life as much as before. Serving others has given me a greater sense of belonging than anything else in my life.
Elder Bednar goes on to explain that as humans, our natural inclination is to turn inward by directing all of our attention on ourselves and our problems, but it is more Christlike to look and reach outward by charitably focusing on others.” I created the following visual for this concept.