Ed Sheeran, Social Anxiety and Feeling Like A Zoo Animal:

In a recent interview with The Sun, Ed Sheeran, the singer, has revealed that he suffers from social anxiety that makes him feel like an 'animal in the zoo.' 

For all the upsides of being famous and wealthy, even that kind of lifestyle can't protect you from social anxiety and Sheeran talks of his constant battle with it. And whilst his lifestyle is a little different from mine (just a little!), I have every empathy with him having battled social anxiety myself from school age and all the way into my thirties. 

Ed Sheeran describes living with social anxiety and the attention that comes with people filming and staring at him as making him feel like a zoo animal. I'd have described my own social anxiety as feeling like 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' whereby in one situation I would be relaxed, comfortable and at ease and in another situation I would be frozen by fear, overthinking, anxiety and worry. 

Yet whether it's Ed Sheeran, the younger me or one of the many people who come to me for help to overcome it, social anxiety has many familiar patterns that lead to doubt, insecurity, lack of trust and fear.  The better news is that all of these anxious thoughts, feelings, beliefs, patterns and behaviours can all be tackled, amended and changed.

Ed Sheeran and His Battle With Social Anxiety

In his Sun interview, Sheeran talks about how he gets anxiety every day. The anxiety, doubt and insecurity that comes with social anxiety has led him to cut his friendship group right back, to get rid of his phone and to keep himself private and out of the public eye. All of these behaviours are quite common with anxiety. Avoiding the things that seem to trigger it can provide a sense of relief.

However, avoidance just tends to re-enforce feelings of anxiety as not only are you confirming to yourself that these things are bad and a threat, but you never learn how to effectively tackle them and cope with them so that they no longer provoke anxiety. All of which contributes to the anxiety continuing and means that you struggle if you are unable to avoid the situation and have to face it.

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Of course, I do get where he is coming from. Having people only talk to you so they can get an autograph or photo for social media, and having people stare at you and film you as you go about your business, can't be much fun. And in the public spotlight, everything gets amplified and exaggerated so no wonder he talks about feeling like a zoo animal and seeks to avoid that.

In his interview Sheeran also talks about how he could never be sure whether people hanging out with him were really his friends for him as a person or just there because of who he is. He also describes how he struggles to comprehend why his wife chose to be with him and about his insecurities, as well as how he doesn't like being around large groups of people. 

As Sheeran says in his interview, "I don't like large groups of people, which is ironic given I play shows to thousands of people. I feel claustrophobic and I don't like being around many people." 

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Social Anxiety

Again, I think that anyone who has ever had social anxiety can relate to that doubt and uncertainty around others. I used to hate large group events such as meetings and training, particularly where I didn't know people or felt they were better than me in some way. I didn't think I had anything worthwhile to say to them, that they'd think I was boring and that I would somehow mess up and seem like a bit of an idiot.

Sometimes I would even doubt if friends actually liked me really and would dismiss any compliments or positive feedback I received as if somehow I didn't deserve it. I would obsess about people looking at me and thinking I looked weird or dressed weird and, such is anxiety, I would often be certain that was what they were thinking (so much so that on occasion my anxiety left me in tears and unable to leave the house). I was sure that I had to hide my insecurities and perceived weaknesses so other people couldn't use them against me in some way or so that it wouldn't give evidence to people that I really wasn't good enough. After I overcame my social anxiety and became more open about it, even close people were surprised as I had hidden it from them so well.

Yet social anxiety can fill your head and take over your mind. You worry about upcoming social or work things for days in advance, you dread them taking place and often secretly hope they will be cancelled. During events you may become quiet and fade into the background and the whole time there is the overthinking, the never ending overthinking. You think and analyse what you are doing and saying and how others may be perceiving it and reacting to it. Sometimes you can spend so long thinking about the best way to say something that by the time you have it ready in your head, things have moved on and you don't get to say it anyway. 

Then there's the overthinking about what other people think about you. Like they are judging you or think you are ugly, fat, stupid, boring, weird, an idiot or anything negative along those lines. You may worry afterwards about what you did and said, even if it seemed innocuous at the time. 

It's one long whirlwind of anxiety, stress, worry and dread that only ends when with a few close people or when you are on your own. Often it would feel like it would be easier to just avoid those anxious things, yet we are social animals and we also need those social connections in our lives.

That's the biggest twist of social anxiety. As humans we have a need to be connected to other humans and we don't want to be ostracised or 'expelled' from the group, and people with social anxiety generally do want to be around others, it's just that it comes with all those terrible anxious thoughts and feelings that make it so uncomfortable so much of the time.

How To Overcome Social Anxiety 

Is it possible to overcome social anxiety? It sure is!

There are many components involved in social anxiety that need to be tackled to end the anxiety. There are those anxious thoughts before you encounter people where your mind may race with worst case scenarios that make you dread it and wonder if you can avoid it. Then there are the anxious feelings, like being tense, restless, that feeling in the pit of your stomach and all the other physical symptoms that can start well before a social encounter and that only increase as it approaches.

In a social situation, you may experience all those anxiety physical things and may also either feel like you have gone blank and can't think clearly, or your mind races with overthinking about what to do and say and that over-analysis only makes matters worse for you. It can be exhausting so no wonder people do what Ed Sheeran has described doing, and try and cut out and avoid those things that seem to create the anxiety.

And the whole time there is that worry about being judged or that people will think badly of you in some way. You worry about saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, or that people are judging how you look or that they will think you are stupid or an idiot or some other negative thing. When I had social anxiety I would say very little in some social situations for fear of saying or doing something that would be ridiculed and that would make me look stupid. 

Those beliefs, that people may be judging you or thinking negatively about you or that you aren't good enough or that you aren't worthy in some way, lie at the heart of social anxiety. They can also lead to replaying social encounters after they have happened and self criticism or negative distortion that adds to the worry the next time there is a similar thing going on. There is that ongoing worry and focus on what people are thinking about you, like you are trying to read their minds, and it always seems to be something bad or that leads to you being harsh towards yourself.

Sorting those all these social anxiety thoughts, feelings, behaviours, expectations and beliefs is what overcoming it is all about. By learning to feel comfortable in yourself, to trust that you are good enough and to relax about what other people are thinking, you can be yourself where ever you go and whoever you are with. Before an event you can start to look forward to it and feel enthusiastic about it. During a social situation you can be calm, confident, relaxed and in control. And you will just know you are good enough and that you are ok, as well as knowing that whatever happens you can handle, deal and cope with it calmly and confidently.

Without social anxiety you don't need to avoid things because of the anxiety (although you may choose to avoid them for other reasons!), you can just relax and have the freedom to feel good being yourself. And you can find that inner acceptance that means, warts and all, you feel ok being you (I've resisted the urge to write about being comfortable with 'the shape of you'!). Who knows, you may even start to enjoy those social things, which would be pretty cool wouldn't it?

To your success

Dan Regan

Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket


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