Ask any of my friends how they’d describe me and they’d probably say I’m bubbly, outgoing and confident – characteristics that aren’t usually associated with someone who has anxiety. Despite coming across as extroverted, I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder when I was 20.
When I was a child I was always labelled as extra cautious or a ‘worrier.’ It wasn’t until I was older that the signs of anxiety were more apparent. Though I always had an understanding that I was anxious, I downplayed those feelings because I’ve consistently been someone who is generally quite confident.
I sang and acted all throughout my childhood, so I loved being on stage. Powerpoint presentation in front of the whole class? No problem. But if someone said something bad about me, I’d replay the conversation 1,000 times in my head. If one of my friends takes hours to respond to a message, I immediately think I’ve done something wrong or that they’re dead (no kidding).
I don’t have any issues speaking to new people, but I constantly have to remind myself that my friends don’t hate me. Even though I’m aware I have anxiety, I’ve noticed that people are often surprised when they discover I’m an anxious person. And it’s a problem other extroverts with anxiety encounter.
“Extroverts often present as confident, self-assured communicators, so with those abilities it is common to assume that feeling anxious would not be something they struggle with,” Counselling Directory member Dee Johnson tells me.
Johnson goes on to say that there’s actually a link between extroverted behaviour and anxiety. “We may miss that what may be driving the more overt behaviour of an extrovert is actually anxiety, which ramps up their ‘performance,’ enabling them to appear anything but on edge,” she says.
Some extroverts instinctively harness the energy of their anxiety in social settings and as a result, others will merely see the vitality that extroverts display.
“The fight and befriend responses really kick in here, pumped full of stress hormones to keep that high octane energy going for as long as required, which can make you feel really ill on the come down of this, but as we assume anxiety does not ‘look’ confident, we misread it,” Johnson explains.
Extroverts will tell you people often minimise how anxious we are because we seem like we’re not, which can actually make us more anxious.
“It can put immense internal pressure on someone to feel that they must keep meeting others people’s expectations of them (which actually further embeds more insecurity and fear),” says Johnson.
Part of the reason why people aren’t aware how anxious we are might lie in the fact that we aren’t speaking to our loved ones about our mental health. I often assume my friends and family won’t care, so I keep my feelings about my mental health to myself. But as I’ve started opening up to a few friends, they’ve been able to support me when I’m having bad mental health days.
“Start with speaking about it to trusted people,” Johnson suggests. “Even as an example, use this article as an opener, wanting to share it as it’s a part of you that has resonated and that you have not been able to explain to someone before.”
We are the sum of all our parts, and as Johnson says: “Having an extrovert side is great, but that does not make up all of you, so let people know that.”
How can we support friends who struggle with anxiety?
If your friend struggles with their mental health, it’s essential to keep having conversations about how you can help them. You should thank you friends for opening up about their anxiety, Johnson says.
“I don’t care how close you may be to someone, to admit something like that can be really nerve-wracking. Share your experiences without making it all about you!” Johnson says.
“Check in on them regularly, and do not take ‘I am fine thanks’ as the first answer. Ask them what they need and what they would like from you as a friend.”
Communication is key to supporting a friend through any mental health struggle – whether that friend is an extrovert and natural-born talker, or someone who craves alone time and is typically more introverted.
Try to avoid assumptions, says Johnson.
“What works for you may be totally off key for them. Help them find a therapist if they need to see a professional,” she adds.
“Do not tell them ‘you shouldn’t feel like that, you’re really confident.’ Be kind, attentive, be aware, keep talking, sharing and do not judge.”