Many of the teens we see struggle with social anxiety. In a brave gesture to help other kids, college sophomore, Catie Willett, agreed to share her thoughts on her own journey. We feel humbled by her honesty.

I’m Not Just Shy
Catharine Willett

“I’m just nervous,” I’d say. “I just don’t like big crowds of people.” These were two phrases I would constantly use to defend and explain my discomfort in social situations since I was a little kid. As the daughter to a vibrant, outgoing and personable mother, it was hard for her to understand my discomfort. It was assumed that I was just shy. Little did she know that my “shyness” felt like drowning, the kind where you didn’t quite get a big enough breath before you were forced down under so your chest is tight with pressure and panic inhibits your ability to function. Being in any crowd of people felt this way. As I grew up the drowning feeling got worse even if the crowds were smaller.

This problem really came to a peak my first year of college. I attended my dream school, Elon University, which was a long seven-hour drive from home and familiarity. I was a straight A student, something easy for me since studying is a solo activity, but I was hopelessly homesick. Nothing about Elon was like home. It wasn’t the school in particular but how different the environment was: no parents, not my home state, and I knew absolutely no one. By the second day of school, it seemed everyone had already found their future bridesmaids and soul sisters. I thought I was too late to make friends and that no one would like me because I didn’t already have people, that they would assume it was probably because I was awkward and weird. My “shyness” had developed into a virus, giving me negative self-talk and insecurities. It was running my life. After a few weeks of living in my room and hardly leaving bed except for class, my parents grew concerned and I began to see myself as a failure. I chose to leave school and come home after the fall semester.

This decision shattered me. I felt like I was deep underwater and there was no coming up for air, leaving college to come home felt like a confirmation of my worst personal fears. However, this bottoming out led me to seek help and it was a decision that has changed my life. My parents and I talked about going to therapy long before I actually went. I worried that by going, I was saying to the world that I had problems I couldn’t handle. I think that getting that push from my parents to just go and talk and see what it was like was really helpful. I met several times with a therapist and my shy “virus” was actually diagnosed as anxiety, specifically I was experiencing social anxiety.

Just being diagnosed allowed me to begin to see the top of the water again. I began scheduling regular therapy appointments, where I was able to explain my discomfort and pain in social situations without fear of judgment or criticism. My therapist worked with me in ways that I could understand. As someone who loves school and actually enjoys studying and homework, she made my tools like homework. Together we created different scripts that I could use to help me maneuver my way through conversations. I have a checklist to make small conversation with three strangers everyday to get over my fear of striking up conversations. Now, socializing is more like taking a test in school, and not to toot my own horn, but I’m very good at taking tests!

Along with therapy, I began taking daily general anxiety medication. With it, I can focus and actually feel like a functioning human being. Simple tasks like answering the phone or opening the door to strangers don’t instantly bring terror to my mind. My favorite method for coping with my anxiety has been a visualization technique. This method is one I picked up in counseling: whenever I’m in a situation that is beginning to make me feel anxious and deep underwater, I close my eyes and think of a situation where I am in control, a place that is soothing to me. Ironically, I picture being underwater.

I see myself having just jumped into a body of water. I don’t see the fall or the splash, but my body floating in the water. I just feel the slow, gradual decline to the bottom of the water. My hair floats up, the usual curls relaxing into long, blonde strands. My arms and legs are cast above my body. I watch my limp limbs as bubbles of air seep out of my nose. The water is the color of seaweed, green, but clear. Within my visualization I only stay in that moment of falling in, just that spot. I never descend more than a few feet and I know I can come up for air. This visualization has helped me relax my anxiety, which feels like drowning, and turns it into something manageable where I can breath above the water.

After spending the entire spring semester of my freshman year at the local community college trying to get back on my feet, I have come out on the other side. Although I’m not “cured,” I am no longer controlled by my anxiety. I’m headed back to school in the fall to James Madison University as a sophomore, where I will be a nice two hours away from home and there is some familiarity within my new school as several of my friends attend there as well. Already, I have begun reaching out to other students, finding roommates to live with next year and actually MEETING them…in person!!! I constantly meet my talk-to-three-strangers-a-day task and at orientation, I was told I was “One of the most talkative of the group!” ME! I am 100% more of the person I want to be than what my anxiety was letting me be.

Everyday I am thankful for the awful freshman year I had. It forced me to look at all the limitations I was experiencing by being controlled by anxiety and fear of social situations. But just because things are better now does not mean they will stay like this without continued work. I am still in therapy and plan to continue my sessions even while I’m away at school. Medication is a part of my daily routine and my tools, like visualization and breathing, are things I want to keep for the rest of my life, so they become second nature. This past year I’ve made enormous progress in my life, so much so that I no longer feel like I’m drowning. The reality is that I’m dry and safe with two feet planted on ground and now I can see and feel it.