I was diagnosed with social anxiety in 2012, the year I graduated from university and moved back home to find a job. I had always been scared of other people. As a little girl I used to make myself sick at the thought of going to school, clinging to my mum and sobbing while she tried to button my blazer.
For a long time it felt like my mind was empty, as if someone had stuck a vacuum into my ear and sucked out any essence of a personality. This absence of thoughts would make me panic and believe I was boring or horrible or weird and that if I spoke to people, they would realise all this and avoid me forever. It felt simpler just to be alone.
It probably wasn’t ideal that my first proper job was at a big media company filled with cool, quick-talking staff. I arrived in my stepmum’s shoulder-padded suit and wanted to run home. Instead, I hid in the bathroom and left the tap running, causing a minor flood.
It soon became obvious that socialising was as much a part of the job as the job itself. Team drinks were a regular occurrence along with networking lunches and company awards ceremonies. I got through most of this by drinking way too much or pretending I had other plans.
Twenty-six-year-old Carolina had a similar experience while working in PR. "Early in my career I actually had a lot of problems because I wouldn't go to after-work drinks or events. While other colleagues became friends with each other, I remained a coworker, which I think actually hindered the company's understanding of me as a person."
I knew my social anxiety was stopping me from fitting in. I would comfort myself with stern reminders that I was here to do a job, not to get involved with workplace drama. But when you have social anxiety, everything is a form of workplace drama. Even walking through the corridor to my desk would cause my cheeks to burn and my heart to race: Is everyone looking at me? I’d skip lunch or hold needing the toilet for six hours. Climbing 11 flights of stairs seemed preferable to standing in a lift with others.
Emily Lavinia, 29, spent years hiding the fact she was so anxious at work for fear of being judged and stigmatised. "I’d feel my hands going tingly and numb and suddenly feel lightheaded. It’d be a race against the clock to get away from my desk and into the bathroom before I lost my shit in front of anyone." She even left the office a couple of times and didn’t go back all afternoon. "I think, Jesus, why didn’t I just tell someone I was struggling?"
Being transparent with your company early on is the key, Nicky Lidbetter, the CEO of Anxiety UK tells me. "Employers often have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) in place for their staff, which give access to a range of wellbeing support services including talking therapies."
If telling your boss feels impossible, finding a colleague you’re comfortable with is another option. "A friendly, supportive ear can play a vital role in giving the person confidence to approach their employer," says Nicky.
It was only when I had to be signed off work that I was honest with my line manager. At first it made the anxiety 10 times worse because I was certain they would fire me when I returned, or just treat me differently.
Then a weight lifted. I was referred for CBT through my workplace health insurance and spent a year in therapy. I could work from home if I was having a particularly bad day, or seek advice if an upcoming project was making me unwell. I no longer felt the pressure to hide my social anxiety while navigating a job with it.
I’ve also been really lucky with my colleagues. I started my career believing I was an alien in human disguise yet my team, made up of kind young women, accepted me. They invited me to quiet lunches in Embankment Gardens, laughed at my jokes, bought me birthday presents and listened to my concerns. It didn’t happen instantly. It started with small gestures, like coffee and compliments on my sloth-patterned socks, but I began to feel more comfortable. Not just at work, but in my own skin.
"I decided to go back to university, where I received a lot of help and support from the staff there. I slowly became more confident thanks to them," says Jade, 25, who left her job after her social anxiety led to her becoming severely depressed. "I've also picked up some coping techniques that help, such as listening to podcasts/music when travelling and practising breathing techniques and meditation daily."
My social anxiety is always there. Some days I can go to the busy canteen and feel okay, others I find I can’t leave the toilet cubicle for half an hour. It’s an ongoing battle, but one I feel more in control of now. For some, reaching such a point has required finding a new career path altogether.
"In November I registered as self-employed," says Jade. "Working for myself means I can work on tasks when I'm in a good mental state (like sending an email) and on days when my anxiety is high, I can work on things that won't trigger it, such as admin or creating new content for my blog."
Carolina found her place in academia. "The good thing about having retrained as an academic is that sociability isn't expected. I find it quite awkward to teach seminars — you're meant to spark a conversation with students, and it can get a bit much — but it's not the only part of my job. Plus, I try to remember that my students might feel as awkward as me, if not more, and that helps."
We’re led to believe that the only successes in the workplace are noticeable, like managing teams of people or giving speeches at important conferences. Every day I remind myself that the small, seemingly insignificant details are as big an achievement as any.
For further information on Anxiety UK’s individual and organisational support services contact anxietyuk.org.uk