How I Managed Social Anxiety After Breast Cancer
The lady with the sultry voice on the navigation system in our car announces that we will arrive at our final destination in 5 minutes. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, my heart starts to pound and I begin to sweat. I silently try to calm myself down but after a minute or two of trying, I turn to my husband and say, “Dan, I’m not sure if I can do this.” He is totally taken aback and pulls the car over to the side of the road.
Today should be a happy day. Today my husband and I are attending the wedding of one of my closest friends’ sons. It will likely be a wonderful party with lots of good food, wine, and dancing. But for me, it’s also the first time I’m attending a fancy social event following my double mastectomy. It’s the first time I’m getting dressed up in big girl clothes with high heels to head out for a night on the town. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Through the months leading up to the wedding, I was excited to have something to look forward to. After all, for close to 2 months, I was restricted by my surgery and the downtime for healing. What I didn’t realize is that this was one of the first times that people — not close friends, but other people — were going to see me after my surgery.
One thing I know for certain is that things have changed as a result of my surgery. Let me explain. Before the double mastectomy and before anything ever happened with my breasts, people looked into my eyes when they greeted me. Since then, friends and acquaintances have looked down at my breasts first and then looked up to meet my eyes. Some may think I am being overly sensitive or paranoid, but I’m not. Trust me, as a small B cup before surgery, my breasts weren’t a source of interest to anyone. But now they are, and that makes me feel uncomfortable and different than before. I even notice close friends paying extra attention to my chest at times. Most have embraced me and been elated and encouraged by my strength during this journey. But I wouldn’t be totally honest if I didn’t say, in some cases, that when some people greeted me, it seemed like they felt sorry for me. And this created anxiety.
As we sat on the side of the road, I told Dan I didn’t want to go to the party. But this clearly wasn’t an option since it would be terribly disappointing to my friend and to me as well. So after a brief but intense discussion, off we went. We arrived at the venue, the valet opened my car door, and out I went on shaky legs into the hall. I grabbed a glass of champagne, which calmed me down somewhat.
The apprehension I was feeling totally knocked me off balance. I am not a socially anxious person; I LOVE a good party. I tried to look at myself introspectively to see what was happening and how I could soldier through these feelings. I asked myself, “What are you afraid of? Why are you worried about the people and what they might think when they see you?” Frankly, the only people I really knew were the immediate family of the groom. The others were merely acquaintances at best. I reasoned with myself, saying things like, “You are a guest at this party. You’re not the mother of the groom. All eyes are not going to be on you!” Still, I was unsettled, but with a lot of positive self-talk and deep breathing, I made it through the ceremony and headed into the cocktail hour.
That’s when I realized that I needed to identify the people I was afraid to see, visualize the encounter in my mind (sort of role-play it), and map out how I would react. After all, it’s really up to me how I choose to react. So that’s what I did during the cocktail hour. I identified the people I was worried about seeing at the reception. I visualized their sideways glances downward when they saw me — and what I thought they might be thinking as they looked at me. I decided that they were really inconsequential and I should not care what they did or thought. More positive self-talk and visualization, and it was time to head into the reception.
Exactly what I feared would happen did happen. We arrived at our assigned table and sure enough, I was greeted by these people in exactly the way I thought I would be. They looked down at my chest, which gave me that vulnerable “I am different” feeling, and then they looked up. But I got through it, because I’d anticipated what would happen beforehand. It happened and it was over.
But the story doesn’t end here. While making my way across the room to congratulate my friend on her son’s wedding, a woman — a total stranger — walked up to me and said, “I just have to tell you, I’m on the board of directors for the top fashion design school in New York, and I must say that by far you are the best dressed woman here and you carry the look so well.” You can only imagine how fast my jaw dropped to the ground. Whoa, I did not see that one coming! My reaction: I briefly told her the background of the earlier story, hugged her, and thanked her for being there for me that night.
Beyond that, we danced, we ate, and we drank at the reception, but most importantly, we celebrated a beautiful milestone with our dear friends.
After the wedding, I did experience similar social anxiety three more times at other events, but I knew that there was a chance that might happen so I was better prepared for the feelings. As a result, the anxiety was not as hard to manage.
As a footnote, I recently came across a photo of my husband and me (at the beginning of this blog) at the wedding, which coincidentally occurred just about a year ago. The photo was taken after I had settled down later in the evening, after all of the anticipatory anxiety. I’m not one to compliment myself often, but I must admit that I looked pretty good that night. I’m very happy I did not give in to my initial impulse to leave the party!