The Positive Pensive

An anxious pessimist tries to find the positive
A woman blowdries her hair, covering her face
Anxiety Personal

What if I get anxious in public?

Over the last four to six weeks, I’ve had a rather unfortunate spike in feeling anxious. It’s as though it’s reared it’s ugly head to say: ‘Ah yes, it’s been approximately three months since you really panicked about something. About time we changed that.’

Nevertheless, I tend to go through such long periods of living my life relatively unaffected that when anxiety does strike, it becomes a significant struggle to manage it. I’m out of practice, so to speak.

This is in direct opposition to the many times where I’ve read other people’s accounts of living with anxiety, where it affects their daily lives, and wondering whether I really had it too.

There have been obvious times this year that were difficult for me – climbing Snowdon, for example. That’s a fairly decent reason to be anxious, for someone who’s never really climbed a mountain.

Recently, however, it’s been much harder to pin down.

It’s not been about whether or not I could climb a mountain, so much as whether or not I could get through a meal with friends, a hair appointment, or a gig.

Viki and the salon experience from Hell

Everything started off well. My stylist and I chatted away for 90 minutes while she applied the mix to my hair. I had a coffee in front of me and was looking forward to reading the magazine I’d brought along with me. As the application finished up, I was left to relax while my hair had time to develop.

It can only have been about 10 minutes into this time when my skin suddenly flushed and I felt sick. I downed the glass of water in front of me. I shivered and tried not to panic.

I read the Editor’s letter in the magazine to take my mind off how I felt. The words blurred and swam. I closed the magazine and just gazed at the front cover. The sound of hairdryers, pop music and stylists chatting surrounded me. I felt a desperate urge to be somewhere quiet – outside in the fresh air, or just a bathroom – but feared I wouldn’t be able to bring myself back to simply sit in the chair.

I was trapped with developer in my hair and a situation I couldn’t get out of. I was also furious that this was happening to me. 

The stylist looking after me noticed that something was amiss – I was sat in the chair, breathing heavily, staring at my hands. Not exactly normal.

“Are you alright? Can I get you anything?”

“Um. I’m actually feeling a bit anxious. It’s nothing you’ve done. Just a bit light-headed.”

And so ensued the best example I have of someone going over and above for someone they barely know.

Sophie disappeared for a few moments and returned with a glass of water, a coconut macaroon and a bowl of Doritos. Noticing that I barely touched any of this, she asked if I might like something more sugary to drink. I nodded.

She then LEFT THE SALON to go and BUY ME A DRINK from the shop next door. She was back in literally less than 30 seconds with an ice-cold can of Diet Coke. I took it gratefully.

For the rest of the appointment, Sophie kept checking I was comfortable, offering me different options to help me feel better. We got through it all, and I survived. I bought her a box of chocolates the next day.

Being anxious can mean surviving, not thriving

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I ‘survived’ a hair appointment. And yet, here I am, already anxious about whether it will happen again at the next one in two weeks’ time.

The rational part of your brain tells you, ‘But you climbed a fucking mountain, how hard can it be to sit in a chair and have your hair done?’.

The louder, irrational part shouts over the top of it, ‘BUT THINK OF ALL THE THINGS THAT COULD GO WRONG?!?!’

‘Going wrong’ doesn’t mean anything tangible, like leaving with a bad haircut, having tea spilt over you, or getting shampoo in your eye.

Going wrong is a sudden increase in your heart rate. An unexpected wave of nausea. The inexplicable feeling of discomfort that rises out of nowhere.

You were fine one minute, now you are not. No external factors have changed.

You are in public.  

‘Going wrong’ is not about actual things. It’s about suddenly not feeling safe and comfortable – with the added potential for humiliation.

Of course it’s irrational. It’s usually in response to a situation that isn’t dangerous at all. And that’s what makes it so difficult to manage, treat, and live with.

Anxiety isn’t easy to understand. Normal, average experiences become problematic and difficult to face. Even so, empathy is always appreciated – and it really can make all the difference.

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