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  • Writer's pictureJen Ottolino

"Climb on": How I Reached New Heights Because of My Social Anxiety Disorder

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

The first step of my recovery from social anxiety disorder may surprise you. A lot.

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) goes way beyond shyness. It’s a profound, persistent fear of being watched and evaluated in social or performance situations. The third most common mental health condition in the world, it can profoundly disrupt your life if left untreated.

People with SAD may:

  • Experience panic symptoms in a new group of people

  • Turn down promotions and other professional and academic opportunities to avoid public speaking

  • Do anything and everything to avoid being the center of attention

This was my SAD (and sad) reality during adolescence and early adulthood.

First Steps

My first attempt to help myself failed miserably. I signed up for Toastmasters, a public speaking club that’s well known around the world. But my fear was too intense. At my first and only meeting, I hid in the back, trying to suppress a full-fledged panic attack. In the end, I dashed out of the room when I thought no one was looking.

Upon reflection, I realized I was as terrified of terror as I was of the social performance situation. What if I did something that scared me slightly less to learn to better manage my panic symptoms? Worth a shot.

Learning to Tolerate Anxiety Symptoms

Believe it nor not, the idea of rock climbing was less scary to me than speaking in front of a group of my fellow humans. So I signed up for a local climbing course. My strategy worked as intended. High up on the rocks, my reptilian brain didn’t notice the rope that held me. It was sufficiently terrified. I sweated, cursed, and flailed, but somehow, I kept going. And the exhilaration of reaching the top kept me coming back for more.

As I improved in sport climbing, I noticed two things. My aversion to my own fear weakened, and my belief in myself grew stronger. My fear wasn’t going to kill me after all. Emboldened, I took on another fear: camping in the wilderness. Alone. After surviving that terror, too, I was ready to go back in the ring with my social anxiety.

Group Therapy

Signing up for a weekly social-anxiety-specific support group was the next step in my recovery. Meeting others with SAD — intelligent, sensitive, and kind human beings — was powerful and validating. They weren’t weirdos, so maybe I wasn’t either!

The psychologist leading the group eased us into exposure therapy: progressively more challenging social tasks that we’d perform for the group. We started with simple introductions and progressed to reading aloud. After several months, we advanced to skits and presentations.

The psychologist taught us to become aware of self-defeating thoughts that fed into our anxiety. This approach, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), is the gold standard for treating SAD and many other anxiety disorders.

Practice, Practice

As I practiced new skills outside the safety of the group, I would sometimes have little relapses. To prevent anxiety symptoms from interfering with my job, where I had recently been promoted, I was prescribed beta blockers. I took these on an as-needed basis before stressful work meetings or presentations. For me, these drugs worked like a charm, preventing the heart rate and breathing changes that would sometimes trigger panic attacks. After a while, I found I no longer needed medication to perform well in most social situations, even high-stakes ones.

Mindset Shift

Many years later, my social anxiety still pops up every now and then, but it no longer controls my life. I’m not grateful I have SAD, but it has left me with a few gifts along the way.

Through rock climbing, I have deepened my connection with nature and made dear friends I still have to this day. I have also taught many others how to climb. Unsurprisingly, I’m good at coaching new climbers through their fears. In fact, there’s nothing more rewarding to me.

If you have SAD, know that improvement is possible. Check out the resources below to get started on your own healing journey.


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