The Anxiety Tripwire: My Intermittent Problem With People

Hi. I’m Ian Harvey, and I’ve got social anxiety.

Consider the following: You’ve spent a year of your life learning a skill, then several more honing it as a hobby. You get licensed, you’re good at what you do, and… nothing. Your brain vapor locks at the thought of actually executing your craft. Thousands of hours sunk in, and your hand drops the paintbrush, or your feet go numb when you strap on the tap shoes.

That’s where I was on Tuesday, all dressed up and no place to go. I’m a massage therapist, and I can’t bring myself to see clients.

The whole massage thing was completely out of left field in the first place. I was a weird kid in high school, with too much Dungeons and Dragons and too little self-awareness. I thought that hugs were only about the arms, and that wishing hard enough could make my crush come around and see the real me. I had hair down to my mid-back and a sweet collection of Hawaiian shirts.


I was also suffering from an insidious case of obsessive compulsive disorder. More on that later. Suffice it to say that I was an anxious young lad, and that I couched it in being weird. I wore it like armor, and let it cloud the truth of my incapacity. Like all humans with a wounded mind, I was an inveterate dissembler; always hiding, always smiling.

I also did musical theater. Well, once, in any case. I sang, I danced, I made the audience laugh, and my parents were proud of me. I loved public speaking, and never had a problem going first when it came to class presentations. It wasn’t just my “weird” act, either. I was never more comfortable or exhilarated than when I had an audience.

I’m betting I just lost a certain portion of my readers who suddenly can’t relate to me. “Social anxiety, but you can sing in front of people?” Others will be nodding their heads, knowing that mental illness is weird. People with dog phobias might love wolves and foxes. People with agoraphobia might be fine going to church, or hitting the casino.

Mental illness is more about theft than lack.

I didn’t lack the aptitude to learn massage. I didn’t lack the simple joy of making contact, or of helping people feel better. The new nonverbal language of massage never stopped fascinating me, and I love it to this day.

Back to Tuesday. I had an appointment later that day to do massage in someone’s home. Before you say “that sounds scary, I can see why you’d be anxious!”, you’ve got it all wrong man. The clients are always lovely, I tend to help them with their pain, and I get paid well. It was the social aspect that was making me miserable.

I didn’t want to call and confirm the appointment. I didn’t want to arrive at the door, or make introductory small talk as I set up my equipment. That’s it.

My day was completely ruined by sheer misery and anticipation, and the day before was only better because I had some temporal distance. I still had a grim heaviness in my chest every time I saw that appointment. It was crushing, it was all-consuming. I have difficulty conveying the sheer visceral aversion I was experiencing because it seems silly, even to me.

I ended up canceling. The sudden lifting of the load was incredible, and I thrill to think of it even now. Birds sang, the sun came out from the clouds, and I was me again. All because I got to avoid a fucking phone call and some small talk.

My point? I guess it’s that anxiety sucks. I worked at a spa before, but the “meeting new clients” thing made it miserable. All 3 years. I worked at a massage factory named after a cardinal sin, and the social aspect made it a creeping nightmare. 2 years there.

I don’t lack social capacity, as can be attested by my students and co-workers, but a small piece of the social puzzle has been stolen from me by anxiety. Medicine has helped, as has growing older. I’ve accomplished a lot, I’ve grown in my role as an educator, and I’m generally okay.


But, Tuesday. Tuesday sucked.

18 thoughts on “The Anxiety Tripwire: My Intermittent Problem With People

  1. Firstly, I want to commend you on such an honest post. It takes an ample portion of balls to admit to anyone that you avoided doing something because of anxiety, let alone on the wide, wild web. It is difficult for me to find people who can relate to my own social pitfalls. To read a manifesto from someone of a similar mindset fills that strange human need to find people that are “like me”.

    I also want to add that you give me hope for my own future. You have taught me that small failures don’t add up to failing as a whole. Yes, you give in to the begging voice in your head from time to time. But, that doesn’t mean you cannot tend to your clients. That doesn’t mean you quit pushing yourself a bit more into the realm of the uncomfortable. Ah, good old hope; why did you ever leave me?

    Thanks for making your blog so damn entertaining. Your crude sense of humor realistically depicts what goes on in my own head, except mine is a BIT more profane. But you certainly wouldn’t want to give Eunice the net nanny a heart attack, so I understand if you hold back a little.

    Lastly, I have lymphatic drainage problems (especially in my neck/jaw area). Would you consider doing a video series on some self-massage for this issue?

    P.S. There is no shame in playing D&D. I still reminisce about rolling D20s, skill modifiers, and the stank of my parents’ basement filled with adolescent men. Although it doesn’t sound charming, it was a total blast. I get a very similar experience playing the Elder Scrolls games, except more solitary.

    1. Michelle, you are a badass, and I’m glad to have provided a murky mirror for your own struggles. I’m all about the idea of failing your way to victory, and it’s the story of my life. I failed on Tuesday, but I saw a client today, and it was groovy. Also I just had this most amazing salad.

      Tell me more about your neck stuff. What are the symptoms, and what have you heard from professionals? Message me on FB or email me if you don’t want to talk about lymph overmuch on a public board.

      P.S. It’s a constant struggle to rein in my profanity. And D20s are still magical to me.

      1. The details on my problems are somewhat extensive, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible. I am almost 3 years into a process of getting well from super high stress leading to hypothyroidism and tummy troubles. I haven’t gotten much of a theory from doctors as to why exactly my lymphatic system is angry with me. But, I have researched quite a bit on my own and have an inkling that it is due to an inflammatory response caused by chronic stress. I am continuing my search for the root cause of my issues and so far acupuncture/herbal medicine has been the best help. I try to do relaxation exercises anytime I can, and that seems to benefit me as well.

        I hope you are still with me here…sometimes my comments turn into novels…The lymph nodes on my throat area (the ones associated with the common cold) are swollen pretty much all the time. The ones under my lower jaw and just behind my ear lobes are sore, swollen, and throbbing (insert sexual pun here). Initially I thought it was just my TMJ being an asshole, but then I learned how many lymph nodes are in the jaw area.

        Thanks man. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

        1. Hey Michelle, not-a-doctor, but your TMJ theory sounds right on to me. Most of those little lymphatic buggers are right by the joint itself, which, if inflamed, is always angry, and always releasing proinflammatory compounds. I, through the magic of the internet, suspect that you also have chronic tension in your neck, shoulders, and upper back. All great reasons for those lymph nodes to be pissy. This sounds less like a case of poor lymphatic return, and more one of inflammation in response to stress (proinflammatory!) and hypertonic muscles (proinflammatory!).

          Also, I worry that you’re overconcerned about the lymph nodes. If you find yourself prodding the poor guys on the daily (or the hourly), or thinking about them more than once a week, it’s your anxiety. Anxiety leads to rumination, which leads to overactive health concerns, which leads to more anxiety.

          I may be way off base. Maybe you’re sitting over there with nodes the size of golf balls, just glowering at your screen. If you think the anxiety theory might have some truth to it, though, let me know. I ended up having to go on a chronic low dose of benzodiazepines for mine, and it murdered my anxiety in ways that L-theanine and rhodiola and all those guys never did.

          If I’m way off base, tell me, and we’ll brainstorm!

          1. See, this is why it pays to ask others’ opinions. It is so easy for occam’s razor to hide in plain sight while pointing and laughing at me, knee-deep in my own complicated imaginings.

            I do indeed have lots of tension in my upper body/neck. While I am always aware of my level of social anxiety, I may be turning a blind eye to my compulsive need to figure out what is wrong with me. Patience is a huge virtue, one that is difficult to have when you feel like shit and don’t know exactly what is going on. I have a long life ahead of me at age 25. My fear of not being well until age 40 is definitely affecting my ability to enjoy life in the now. THAT is a detrimental way of thinking that I couldn’t have brought to light without your insight, so thanks for that.

            I also have a short story that gives much credit to the opinions you gave me (don’t worry, I won’t legally hold you to them….for the sole reason that you wear bowties.) Last night around 2AM, I awoke with my heart pounding out of my chest, feeling cold and clammy, jittery, and short of breath. These are all symptoms of thyroid overmedication, so I decided to go to the ER just in case. Fast forward, and I am fine. But, they did some blood tests and my TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) was waaay higher than it normally is (higher = more hypothyroid). My endocrinologist got back to me about it a little while ago. Apparently she also believes that what happened is due to anxiety, not my thyroid being a bastard.

            Two rights don’t necessarily mean a right, but hearing two professionals with more knowledge on the subject than I have say pretty much the same thing makes me think it’s the best possible answer.

            I know for sure I need to stop worrying so much about my health. That will be step one. I would consider trying medication depending on the pros and cons. Any other insights you have, oh wise one?

          2. I’d like to thank you for the advice you’ve given me. If I could give you a trophy of awesomeness, I would. I also wanted to apologize for my long-winded missive. Sometimes my brain likes to yell at my fingers to keep typing.

            I have since asked my friend (who is almost done with his degree to be a therapist) to help me out. I’ll be implementing some mindfulness/relaxation/CBT type stuff. I also cut out all of my health porn (i.e. podcasts and blogs, except for yours of course) so I don’t continue to feed the fire of obsession.

            Thanks again and keep up the great work : )

          3. No worries about being long-winded, my stupid thing just didn’t tell me I had a reply! I’m sure it’s user error, but I’m still mad at it.

            While I’m not glad to hear that I was right about the health anxiety thing, I am glad to have helped you realize that that might be what’s really behind all this. I know what you mean about health porn (I also fucking love how you put it), as I used to be, well, obsessed with lots of little stuff. When I was at my worst, I’d be consulting Dr. Google, a quack if there ever was one, several times a day to look up various symptoms. Good on you for implementing some new de-stressing behaviors, because that is really at the crux of so much of what we face. That said, I would definitely recommend seeing someone who is fully licensed, and discussing medication. Life doesn’t have to be a constant struggle to not feel like crap. Just an intermittent one 🙂

            I do indeed have some more wisdom, by the way 🙂 While you have grabbed on to your social anxiety as your major problem, have a look at how anxiety is at play in other areas of your life (health concerns, work, school, etc). Your anxiety might be more pervasive than you give it credit for. If this is true, a lot could change if you dealt with your anxiety more aggressively. Keep me posted! And feel free to talk my ear off. If you have a blog, I wanna see!

          4. Don’t worry, I wasn’t unblinkingly hitting refresh on my computer to see if you’d replied. I think I’d be in a much rockier boat if that were the case AND I’d be calling you a jerk, which we all know you certainly are not.

            I will definitely consider all that you have said thus far. I feel like we are on the same mountain, but you are at a higher vantage point. You are able to see obstacles in my path that I cannot.

            Thanks for throwing me a rope when I felt alone. I’ll keep you in mind if I need an extra hand to pull me up.

  2. Ian, this one is deep, like you said. You almost lost me at a certain point. I dont know what to say. I’m still thinking whether or not it was your comfort zone that made you cancel that phone call or it is really that the massage thing or getting in contact with new people kills your brain.

    I think that doing the same thing (introductions and small talk) for a few years can be the cause. What do you think?


  3. I can identify with this post! I fought social anxiety before and during massage school. When I graduated, I was nearly crippled by the thought of getting a job, any job, much less doing massage on actual paying clients. I worked at a big box hardware store for 7 months, 2 months into my current massage job. I still get kicked in the face with anxiety when I have to go to work. I hate the fast pace and feeling rushed. Anxiety for me has morphed into a weird fixation on time and being late. I wake up exhausted, thinking about what I need to do before I go to work. I becomes overwhelming and I end up laying on my bed, in pj’s, doing nothing and thinking about all I should be doing. I’m trying the grounding and being present. I just find it incredibly ironic that folks come to me for relief with stress and relaxation. Little do they know the battle inside….

  4. Your experience sounds very similar to mine (the dread and heaviness). My hiatus from massage was around a year and change, thanks to my fucking anxiety. It hit me when I left the corporate massage mill and tried working for a private salon. I lasted 2 days. I realized I had poor emorional boundaries and took client problems home with me in my head. I’ve been working in massage for a solid year now. I’m in a much better headspace, although I definitely have my days when I struggle. However, on the whole, I’m excited about helping folks and learning more. 🙂

Comments? Stories? Write something!