Having suffered from social anxiety since she was a teenager, Phaedra Longhurst is here to reassure other students that the condition shouldn’t stop anyone from becoming a great nurse.
Being diagnosed with ’generalised anxiety disorder’ when I was 16, and social anxiety two years ago, the decision to train as a nurse has at times been conflicting given the importance of social responsibility in the role.
You are the frontline of the NHS, and your role is largely built upon successful communicating, empathising with a patient and their family, and to become a reliable member of a large workforce.
Classmates have interpreted me as outspoken, at times loud, and most importantly, extroverted. However, my development of social anxiety is the reason for the loud exterior, and in actual fact, I’m incredibly introverted and spend a lot of my time ruminating.
Such rumination is often on events which have taken place that day, or the party I went to 5 years ago where I misplaced my phone from having drunk too much alcohol to help suppress the panic of being surrounded by strangers.
To speak openly about my social anxiety is difficult, mostly because the understanding of it is still rather small and deleterious, but also the thought of a nurse with social anxiety is perceived as an illogical pairing.
However, since starting my nurse training in September, I have managed to develop these tips:
- Lunchtime (socialising)
It’s a dreaded time of day – where do you sit? Can I invite myself to their table? Should I just go to the library and avoid it all together?
I had spent the first three months mostly avoiding the cafeteria and sitting (hiding) in the library instead. Firstly, it is okay to do this, and do not give yourself a hard time for doing this at the start of your course, term or returning after placement.
The first and most difficult task is to recognise thoughts that may be exacerbating the anxiety or generally being mean to yourself, but once done so, enforce or practise mindful techniques which will help break the thought pattern. ‘It’s okay that I’m feeling this way. It will come with time. I won’t feel like this forever. The bad cloud will pass over.’
It is also important to recognise that having the anxiety itself is hard enough, but to skip out on cutting yourself some slack will slowly and surely grind you down.
Secondly and the most cliché, be mindful of other introverts that may be by themselves. Although I didn’t always have the courage to do this myself, be brave and approach them and ask them to join for lunch, ask how they’re getting or questions about them. It takes the focus away from you, but it allows conversation to start flowing.
Lastly, don’t be apologetic about being yourself. It is hard and will be hard, but after well-deserved time, people will cherish your true self and most importantly, so will you.
- Placements and patient interaction
Heart palpitations, shallow breathing, clammy hands – they may all kick in and it may be inevitable.
But placement periods, or gaining experience regardless, are far more useful than I could comprehend in regard to my social anxiety. The conversations I’ve had, the relationships I’ve built with patients and their family, as well as colleagues, were far more of a therapeutic mechanism than the nine years of continuous CBT.
Counselling/therapy is a hugely important tool, but to prove myself, reconditioning and building up those communication skills hands-on was the best for me and my anxiety.
Even if you haven’t had previous experience, allow yourself to have training wheels on during your first placement and if you have awkward moments, whether they’re self-perceived or not, take a breath and learn and move forward from it.
Speaking of which, placements are looming and although there’s anxiety, learn ways on how to cope with it and how you can progress with the help of your colleagues and mentor.
This leads me to the most important tip, let your mentor and university know. Don’t put yourself and them in the dark and don’t be afraid of possible stigma. They will be there to support you and guide you through it.
- Seeking or asking for help
The mind and anxiety will be brilliant at inducing all sorts of thoughts and emotions, and will get you to the point where they are then believable.
You may feel isolated, unlikable, weird, therefore an unfit nurse. Firstly, it’s important to condition yourself away from bottling things up and learn to talk openly, else it’ll only induce onset burn out.
Secondly, there is always help – in recognising these intrusive thoughts as anxiety instead of reality. There are many paths of treatment to take, and it is building up the belief that whatever path you take, whether if its counselling, medication or combining of both, that there will be no stigma attached to you.
By asking for help or making the right treatment plan for yourself and putting your mental health first, makes you a brilliant student/future nurse in itself.