Jordan Raskopoulos is a natural born performer. For most people performing on stage in front of thousands is a terrifying prospect. Not so for Raskopoulos. A talented comedian and singer she’s in her element on stage. She also lives with high functioning anxiety.
In a funny and enlightening TEDx talk, she tells her story and it’s one I’m all too familiar with.
As Raskopoulos tells us, people ask “how on earth can you have a problem with anxiety Jordon when you are so confident on stage.” Her response is “well the problem is I am only confident on stage. Off it, I’m a timid, mumbly wreck.”
She is happiest in front of an audience but is terrified of social interaction. In her words “I don’t get stage fright, I get life fright.” Like me, she fears chatty taxi drivers and hairdressers. She feels anxious if she turns up to a party “too early or too late or overdressed or underdressed or if I don’t see anybody I know.” These are all things I can relate to.
Luckily my anxiety isn’t quite at the same level as hers but I also experience this sort context dependent anxiety. She tells us one of her friends calls people like us “shy/loud” because we’re fine in front of an audience just not talking to people in other situations.
When I’m in front of people performing a role I am fine. This explains why my anxiety more or less vanishes when I’m at work, performing magic on stage or at a party, or speaking to lecturers (‘playing’ the role of a student).
Take me away from an audience or strip me of my role and I spend every second looking for an escape. I can do small talk and socialising but only for a couple minutes. Getting trapped in a conversation about my plans for the weekend not only bores me but also make me feel claustrophobic.
As Raskopoulos notes this tendency to seek escape can be mistaken for arrogance but it’s not. In the moment, as the noose of interaction draws ever tighter and tighter, I suffocate. I need to escape, to leave the situation and unwind. It’s not that I don’t like a person or am trying to be rude. Throughout our conversation, my body is screaming at me “we don’t want to be here. WE DON’T WANT TO BE HERE. THIS IS SCARY FOR US.”
I’m also very introverted and need to take time to recharge after social interactions. At parties or when visiting people, I’ll often disappear for minutes while I go for a walk or speak to one other person so I can refocus and recentre.
Of course, logically, removed from social situations I can say that I am overreacting. That iceberg I see in the distance ready to sink the conversation is only a mirage. It’s wrong for me to think that I’ll somehow fail as a person if I mess up in conversation. But that’s the thing about our brains – they were not built to let logic rule, they were built to keep us alive.
Some (Probably) Butchered Science
Most people are familiar with the phrase “fight or flight” coined in 1915 by Walter Bradford Cannon but many don’t know that there’s also a third response. This response is to freeze. From deer caught in the headlights to prey confronting predators, organisms in the natural world show a propensity for freezing in place when scared or anxious. Former FBI agent and author Joe Navarro explains in What Every Body is Saying that shoplifters do it too. In their anxiety to not be detected many shoplifters automatically freeze their movements ironically making them more visible to the trained eye. Victims of sexual assault and others experiencing traumatic events also sometimes show a freeze response.
Somewhere along the line, my brain has decided that it will respond to social interactions as if I were confronting a tiger or shoplifting which is unhelpful, to say the least.
It’s important to note that fight, flight or freeze responses are modified during social interactions as a blog post by Kylie Murrin on Joyable notes. Murrin explains that a fight response may cause a person to snap at people while anxious. Meanwhile, a flight response may cause a person to go hide in a bathroom as Raskopoulos admits to sometimes doing. Finally, a freeze response can present as a person clamming up or blanking out while in a stressful situation.
My freeze response is also visible when I’m confronted with a lot of tasks. Like Raskopoulos when I face them: “I worry, I procrastinate and I do nothing at all.”
So why do us shy/louds do fine when performing on stage but freeze in social situations or procrastinate when given a long list of tasks? For Raskopoulos and myself, it’s because of perceived control. It’s why I’ve been doing magic for a few years now. I’m confident and happy when I’m performing. When we’re on stage or performing we know how things will play out. We’re in control and that makes all the difference.