Our comprehension and understanding of mental health issues are changing.
But there is one area I feel hasn’t yet been as well addressed as the others but affects SO many of us. It is the most common anxiety disorder. Social Anxiety. For this post, specifically when eating in public or in front of others.
To those people who don’t give a second thought to when, where or who they eat in front of, this post will be a novel concept. Why wouldn’t you eat in front of people? If you’re hungry..eat!
People just don’t ‘get it’. And I fear people never will.
Is that ignorance on their part? Are we trying to be overly PC in feeling people should understand or is it just an issue those of us with Social Anxiety need to ‘man up’ about (so to speak) and get over it?
For me, it started in lower (primary) school. I remember being pulled aside by our Headmaster to be asked why I didn’t eat lunch (as I would stand in the queue with friends but not order myself) and I felt a sense of pride. I really did. It was control. If the only thing you can judge me for, is not eating, and not for what I am eating then I can happily live with that.
Polos and chewing gum became my saviour over the years. If I ever got hunger pangs or felt a rumble, polos and chewing gum were always there. You wouldn’t judge someone for having a mint, surely? It was safe.
Now as an adult, drinks are my safety. A sugary coffee can alleviate those feelings of hunger. And again, who judges an adult drinking coffee? But if you always saw me with a ‘coffee and..’ some type of food, there would be an element of judgement. Whether intentional or not.
You may read the above and consider it an eating disorder and although they are are connected it’s not an eating disorder in the traditional sense. It’s mental health. This is my negative relationship with food and the connections I make with controlling a situation that I am not comfortable in.
It had and has nothing to do with my weight or calorie intake or what the food will do to me. It is Social Anxiety. I am scared of what you will think if you see me eat a whole sandwich. Crisps. Sushi. Fruit. Anything! You might think that i’m fat. That i’m greedy. That i’m unattractive when and for eating.
Firstly, I am not trying to allude to the fact that I don’t eat. You know I eat. I know that you know I eat.
Secondly, I don’t binge and I don’t starve, which are the general connotations of eating disorders. I control, which IS a sign of an eating disorder.
Don’t for a second think I didn’t get home from school and make toast. Eat a sweet. Eat my dinner. Have cereal before bed.
I like food and I eat normally. I am not excessive in my eating but I do eat. I eat only where and with people I am comfortable around. I can easily go 14+ hours without food, knowing I will be home soon. Home is safe.
I did not, and do not to this day generally eat food in front of people I don’t know well, that cannot be eaten in one bite, or broken into sections. Eating in front of family and close friends is not an issue.
I eat bananas because they can be broken, a twix can be broken, blueberries are singular. Cup a soup can be disguised. A lot of the food I eat is because I can pick at it but it is usually sugary, whether good or bad. This is why I can’t connect it to an eating disorder as we know and think of them. Sugary food makes me chubby (which leads to further anxiety and further negative views of a different kind and perhaps requires a further blog post). This is not about maintaining a weight.
When your energy is peaking high and low all day. It’s not good. It becomes a really vicious cycle. It’s emotional. I am emotional.
And the anxiety does not just come in the initial avoidance of food.
Working lunches are a panic inducing thought, lunch is brought in for you to eat as you work, but I won’t eat. I will have a water, or a coffee.
Once I make my excuses to avoid taking any food, I am conscious of appearing like I have an eating disorder. That people think that I think i’m too good for the food provided. People think i’m snobby. Or that i’m just weird.
On the flip side, I have tried and really pushed myself in the past and have eaten some variation of salad in front of colleagues. Salad, right? Again..it’s healthy and I can pick at it. You can’t judge me for being healthy!
You will always have those people, and this is where it leads me back to asking, is it ignorance, or are we asking too much of people? Those people who pass an innocent comment..’why are you having salad?’ ‘how boring’ ‘salads not good for you, you know’ Ah..ha..ha.. Oh the irony. Yep. I get it. Thanks.
Your way of trying to make polite idle conversation has just heightened my eating disorder. You have unintentionally and single handedly made me conscious of eating, of what i’m eating and the fact that you have been watching me and what I am eating.
I can’t even keep my head down and eat a salad in a crowded room without feeling singled out. Without feeling ‘silly’ and paranoid that people are judging. I know you’re not but I feel like you are.
I know that most people probably haven’t taken note of me or my food. The only thing you probably will notice is how slowly I eat. That’s the anxiety. Ironically, my trying not to stand out, makes me stand out. I am always last to finish. It’s part of that cycle. I don’t want to look greedy so I pick at my food, then my anxiety is heightened because i’m taking so long to finish when everyone else already has.
It’s irrational. Even I read this and see that it seems irrational and I totally get that. Hopefully those of you with Social Anxiety and specifically when eating in public will relate to and understand what I am talking about but to everyone else, I can imagine I am moaning a lot about nothing and should get over it. Well, that’s what I imagine you will think. (Is that my anxiety?)
You see, my mind is a never ending ticking of needless worries. I am a typical representation of what a person with Social Anxiety is.
I am quite quiet and shy. Very nervous of new situations. We’re talking increased heart rate and clammy palms here. I can also be quite aloof, negative and forthright if I feel very uncomfortable. Again, this is my control of an overwhelming situation, but the reality is that it’s my social anxiety controlling me. Fight or flight.
This can really limit your social circle and social life. I don’t like to go out in big groups but part of me also wishes I had a big group of friends. Wishing I could go to events, go for celebratory meals and not worry about the ‘what ifs’.
I wish I didn’t need so much approval. From myself.
The main treatment for Social Anxiety is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which is to help you change the way you think and feel about certain situations. To regain that sense of what is rational and to learn better coping mechanisms for those situations where you are uncomfortable.
I have been offered this treatment but I don’t know if i’m ready. I don’t know if i’m ready to give up that control after so many years or if i’m ready to lose what has been such an influence on my identity, even though I know it would make me a nicer, happier version of myself.
And in a typical Social Anxiety sufferers response.. I just don’t know
To find out more about the symptoms and reasons behind social anxiety – click here