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Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety In The City

Let’s talk about a few situations we all encounter in the city that triggers our social anxiety

Let’s talk about a few situations that can trigger social anxiety in the city.

The 55% of us who live in an urban area find ourselves colliding with strangers, neighbours, and people of all sorts daily.

On the subway commute, on the bus, walking home, and so on.

Life in a city is stressful, and adding social anxiety is not cool.

Not cool, yo. I can’t express how much more frequently my social anxiety has been triggered since I moved to Amsterdam a few years ago than when I lived in the American Suburbs.

It makes sense.

In America, the majority of people spend their time in cars. To work. To School. To buy groceries. Drive, drive, drive.

And while, yes, driving anxiety is real, it is amplified in a city, and I’ll happily explain why in just a few minutes.

But we’re going to talk about much more than just driving.

I live in a European city, so most of these talking points are from that perspective. But we’ll have much in common if you live in a city too.

And by the way, if you don’t, chances are you might in the future, with the projected number being that 68% of us will live in an urban area by 2050.

Alright, so first order of business.

Let’s talk about driving in a city.

Here are some of the reasons why driving can trigger your social anxiety:

  • Fear of judgment. You worry about being judged by others. This can be especially true while driving in a public space, and everyone can see you. You may worry about being judged on your driving skills, appearance, or even the type of car you’re in.
  • Fear of making mistakes. Driving requires you to make a lot of decisions quickly and accurately. You may worry about making mistakes like running a red light or hitting another car. This fear can lead to anxiety and distraction, making driving more difficult.
  • Fear of losing control. Driving requires you to maintain control of your vehicle and your emotions. You may worry about losing control of it. This fear can lead to anxiety and panic attacks, making driving dangerous.

In addition to these general reasons, some specific triggers can trigger social anxiety while driving. For example, you may feel anxious about driving in certain situations, such as:

  • Driving in heavy traffic
  • Driving on highways
  • Driving at night
  • Driving with passengers
  • Driving in unfamiliar places

Let me share my story about driving in an unfamiliar place and how social anxiety visited me.

I will preface this part by mentioning that I’ve had my driver’s license since I was 16. I had my first car at 17 and then many more after that.

Since I moved to Amsterdam in 2019, I have fully given up owning a car because we don’t need it here. But, sometimes, I need to get back behind the wheel, and that’s where I run into nonsense.

Now, mind you, I do not have a Dutch driving license (which I probably should), which means that most of the time, I do not understand the road signs and find myself stuck in a pickle.

No matter how often my husband tries to explain them to me, I’m so not used to them, and they go by so fast that I can’t process them.

So here is one example of when my social anxiety was triggered:

Amsterdam is a beast; OK, there’s a lot of movement at all times.

Pedestrians, tourists, bikers, trams, buses, cars. They’re all moving at the same time in different directions.

Most of the time, I have no clue where I’m going, and let me tell you that my Google Maps has failed me so many times that I had to figure out where to go at that moment.

I remember this one instance when I ended up on a tram line where no cars were allowed to go. So there I was, looking for a way out, but there was none.

The road just kept going. I started to panic because 1. I was driving with an American license, and 2. It wasn’t my car, so if the police saw me driving alone on the tram line, I wouldn’t know how to escape it.

Luckily, no tram came from either side, but oh my gosh. Serious social anxiety just thinking about that moment.

Here are some things you can do to make it easier on yourself:

  • Plan your routes ahead of time. This will help you avoid unfamiliar areas and situations triggering your anxiety. However, if you’re in a new city like I am, and Google Maps fails you, or there’s construction or one-way streets, this might be a moot point.
  • Drive during off-peak hours. This will help you avoid heavy traffic and other stressful driving conditions. Again, this is not always possible because of your schedule and lifestyle.
  • Listen to calming music or podcasts. This can help to distract you from your anxiety and make the driving experience more relaxing.
  • Take breaks often. If you start to feel anxious, pull over to a safe place and take a few minutes to calm down.

The second order of business is biking in the city.

If you don’t know, there are about 1.3 bikes per person in the Netherlands (more bikes than people in this country).

So bikes here are like the staple of the culture, right? People bike everywhere, at any time, in any weather. They bike with five kids on the bike while holding another bike, a dresser, flower pots, and so on. It’s almost like seeing a daily circus act over here.

So people bike everywhere with their whole household, and I’m not that strong of a biker. Again, I grew up in America, and it was all about the car.

If you bike in your city, here are some reasons why you might experience social anxiety:

  • Fear of being judged. This can be especially true while cycling in a public space, where everyone can see you. You may worry about being judged on your cycling skills, appearance, or even your choice of bicycle. Same as the car example.
  • Fear of falling. Cycling requires you to maintain your balance and coordination. You may worry about falling, especially in front of others. This fear can lead to anxiety and distraction, making cycling more difficult.
  • Fear of traffic. Cycling in traffic can be stressful and dangerous. You may worry about being hit by a car or causing an accident. This fear can lead to anxiety and panic attacks, making cycling dangerous.
  • Fear of riding with others. You may feel anxious about riding with other people, especially if they are strangers. This fear can be caused by several factors, such as the fear of being judged, falling, or being unable to keep up.

Here are some situations that are prime for social anxiety on the bike:

When you’re at the red light:

It’s as if you’re at a starting line next to 3-4 other bikers, and you all have to file into one row. 

Not only do you have to be ready so you don’t hold up the others behind you, but you have to make sure when you push off the bike, that you’re not steering the wheel too off course (which happens so often I almost hit the person next to me) and that you find your way forward in the line. 

You might also feel bad about cutting someone off as you race forward and then see them as they bike past you, giving you the stink eye.

When you ding your bell at someone as you pass them by:

Or, in my case, yell because I don’t have a bell, and they end up next to you at the next light. Oh boy, is that cringe. 

There’s no metal between you as there would be in a car where you can look ahead and pretend nothing happened. I only yell at pedestrians these days.

When you end up going against the grain:

Somehow, you missed the road you were supposed to take and ended up on the wrong side of the street. Technically, any bike path can be used bi-directionally, but it’s frowned upon. 

I always die a bit inside when I bike past people who had to move out of their way to make space for me, the intruder.

And that’s the thing about biking: you’re exposed to the world. People can talk to you at any moment; there’s no shelter like the roof of your car.

5 quick ways to manage social anxiety

5 Quick Ways To Manage Your Social Anxiety

There’s no substitute for effort, but you can speed up the process if you understand and take these 5 ways seriously. This is your starter pack; what you do with it is up to you.

Now, let’s move on to self-checkouts at grocery stores.

Yes, I realize that these are also available in non-urban areas, but imma talk about them anyway here.

So they’ve eliminated most of the cashiers here. You have to go and do your self-checkout, then click at the end, and you get a receipt. And with that receipt, you have to open the gate. 

So that’s like the only to get out of the grocery stores. I don’t know what happened at some point, but I checked out, got the receipt, and lost it. I didn’t move. I was still in the same place, and fun fact: I couldn’t find it for my life. 

Then I thought, oh my God, they’re going to think I didn’t pay.

I don’t want to pay twice for all this food again. And I was already playing out the conversation in my head where they would say I didn’t have the receipt. 

Where the hell did it go? 

Anyway, I found someone to help me. Again, it was very stressful because I also had to explain what happened in English, which isn’t always easy.

So I understand the whole technology thing at grocery stores, but it can create moments of social anxiety, where you have to go ask for help or freeze because something went wrong and people are staring.

Also, the feeling of being an inconvenience can be anxiety-inducing.

Here are some reasons why social anxiety shows up at self-checkouts:

  • Fear of failure: You might worry people think you’re shoplifting if the machine malfunctions, especially if you might look like you just came off the street because you didn’t sleep the whole night. You might also worry about having to ask for help, especially if a long line of people is waiting to check out; there’s added pressure on you.
  • Fear of incompetence: You might worry that you didn’t go through the process properly and didn’t get the receipt and then have to explain to the person what happened. You’ll probably feel stupid, even though that happens often with the machines. Self-checkouts can be complex and confusing, and you may worry about making mistakes.
  • Fear of symptoms: If you have to ask for help and you’re frazzled, the words might not come out right (again, maybe making you look like a suspect), and you might blush. And then that’s a whole new trigger you have to deal with! Like, what is wrong with this person? She’s lying.

Some specific triggers can trigger social anxiety at self-checkouts. 

For example, you may feel anxious about using a self-checkout if:

  • You have a lot of groceries.
  • You are shopping with other people.
  • You are using a self-checkout for the first time.
  • You have had a bad experience with a self-checkout in the past.

Things that have helped me in the past to reduce my social anxiety around check-outs:

  • Choose a self-checkout that is not busy. This will give you more time to scan your items and complete the transaction without feeling rushed.
  • Bring someone with you. This can help you to feel more comfortable and confident.
  • Go to the sales clerk instead of self-checkout If there is one.
5 quick ways to manage social anxiety

5 Quick Ways To Manage Your Social Anxiety

There’s no substitute for effort, but you can speed up the process if you understand and take these 5 ways seriously. This is your starter pack; what you do with it is up to you.

Now, let’s talk about throwing the trash.

Yes, this probably looks very different for all of us, depending on where we live and the city’s services, but here’s the setup in Amsterdam.

Most of us don’t have personal garbage bins. 

There are underground containers on each street—one for cartons, one for glass, and one for regular trash. You have to walk out in all types of weather and put the trash inside the container, but you can’t leave the trash bag outside on the sidewalk when it’s full. 

We found out the wrong way.

The city went through our trash bag and found a paper with our name in it, and we got fined for leaving it there. You either take it back home (which sucks if you’re on the way to work and it’s heavy because you have to lug it back up the steep stairs), or you keep walking down the street until you find a container that has space.

So the other day, I had to walk around with this trash bag like three blocks, looking for containers because I didn’t know where the other ones were on the other streets. 

I’m like, where the hell are these containers? And I’m just walking around with a trash bag, looking lost.

At that point, I got anxious. Because then, when I tried to put it in a container, and it didn’t fit, I had to force it somehow, which was a whole new type of ordeal. Oh my God, I hate it.

Here are some reasons why taking out the trash can bring out social anxiety:

  • Fear of being seen as messy. You may worry about being seen as messy or disorganized. You might be anxious about your trash being visible to others or about spilling or dropping something.
  • Fear of being approached. You may worry about being approached by strangers or acquaintances while taking out the trash. You might feel pressured to have a conversation or worry about being seen as rude if you ignore the person.
  • Fear of embarrassment. You may worry about embarrassing yourself while taking out the trash. You might be anxious about tripping and falling or spilling or dropping something.

You can do a few things to reduce this:

  • Choose a time to take out the trash when fewer people are around. This may be early in the morning or late at night.
  • Take out the trash in batches. This will make it less noticeable and less likely that you will spill or drop something.
  • Take a friend or family member with you. This can help you to feel more comfortable and confident.
  • Plan your route ahead of time. This will help you avoid potential triggers, such as neighbours often outside.

Lastly, we’re going to step into the shoes of a pedestrian in a city.

Walking the streets can bring out social anxiety in several ways.

I mean, this is the ultimate exposure, isn’t it? 

You’re bound to run into people you know or even strangers who give you strange looks for no reason. 

Being stuck in lines or at crossings can enhance social anxiety if you feel awkward about being there. And especially if you’re lost and staring at your phone and potentially bump into people by accident.

Then you’re THAT person. You know, the annoying one that can’t unglue themselves from the phone for a moment to be present in the world. Except you can’t make the case for yourself that you’re not.

So here are a few reasons why walking in a city can bring out social anxiety:

  • Fear of being judged: You may worry about your appearance, clothes, or even how you walk. But the worst part of this is being called out for it. As a woman, I can’t express how often I’ve been stopped or tried to be talked to when I just minded my business.
  • Fear of crowds. You may feel overwhelmed and anxious in crowds. Cities are often densely populated, and you may be surrounded by people while walking. This can be a very stressful experience.
  • Fear of being approached. You may worry about being approached by strangers while walking in a city. You may feel pressured to have a conversation or be worried about being seen as rude if you ignore the person.
  • Fear of embarrassment. You may worry about embarrassing yourself while walking in a city. You may be anxious about tripping and falling or bumping into someone.

Listen, I got used to being ignored as a pedestrian in the States. You can imagine my horror of being placed under the spotlight whenever I must cross the street as if I’m some celebrity. 

All cars stop for pedestrians here; sometimes, I feel like I’m such an inconvenience for making them stop.

Worse still, if I’m walking with my 3-year-old, who likes to take her time, we’re the only ones crossing the street.

In one way or another, walking in a city can bring out a lot of emotions, triggers, and trauma if you’ve experienced something unpleasant.

I’m not saying there isn’t any social anxiety in the suburbs, but the having social anxiety in the city is more challenging as more moving parts are out of our control. 

It’s not like I can press a button, have my garage door open, and then walk into my home without ever running into a human.

If you live in an urban area, I’d love to hear what brings out your social anxiety in the city and what you’ve done to manage it. You can reach me on Instagram or shoot me an e-mail at [email protected]

I mention 5 areas that can trigger social anxiety in the city, the reason behind them, and what to do about it. The 5 areas are: driving, walking, biking, self-checkouts, and throwing trash.

I'm Roxana

I went from being scared to ask a question out loud to hosting summits online. I love coffee, french crepes, and working from home. My mission? Help others build their social confidence to make friends, have conversations, and be comfortable around people!

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5 quick ways to manage social anxiety guide

There’s no substitute for effort, but you can speed up the process if you understand and take these five ways seriously.
5 quick ways manage social anxiety

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