Words by Sabita Burke
Ah, graduate life. The first, last and only time of our lives when we’ve just finished the thing we’ve been stuck in full-time our entire lives – our education – for good, and we finally have this weird and wonderful thing called freedom that we’re now suddenly able to enjoy. As we start applying for shiny new jobs and look out into the exhilarating prospect of the next few months where (we think) anything is possible, excited about the freedom that will be our future, this has got to be the most stress-free, least anxiety-provoking time of our lives. Right?
Wrong! Going through a period of job applications and having interview after interview is like having a never-ending exam period, but you’re only told what subject you’re taking a few weeks before the exam. You constantly have to ‘revise’ or research the companies you’re applying to, teaching yourself heaps of information to try and remember for use in interviews, only to begin this cycle again for the next company. Perhaps worst of all, you know that, in the vast majority of these tests, no matter how much you prepare, you can easily fail.
This is what we all have to go through as new graduates looking for jobs. And yet for those of us with social anxiety, an added layer of fear makes this situation even worse because, faced with what are often our worst fears of very real failure and stumbles in pressurising social situations, it’s all too easy for our minds to go into overdrive.
My battle with anxiety began when I was 13. I started to struggle with making friends even though I had always been chatty and sociable before. Whenever I went to see the friends I already had, I felt an unexplainable awkwardness and didn’t know what to say. Freezing up around the very people I wanted to open up to became an underlining staple of my attempts at a social life.
This changed when I left college and solo travelled to Thailand to teach English for my gap year, but went downhill again when I started university and slipped back into my old habit of letting myself be too afraid to make an effort to socialise. I realised just how sensitive I am – being a HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), an introvert and having social anxiety is the epitome of a triple whammy!
Now, I try to use the David Goggins ‘Cookie Jar’ method. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, it’s a thought process whereby you count up all your past achievements and accomplishments that you’re proud of, especially things that you once upon a time thought you could never do. Looking at them all together reminds me that ‘if I can do X, if I can do teaching, if I can successfully deliver a presentation in front of a big class at uni, I can do anything!’
Below are some more techniques that I try to use when I’m feeling anxious for an upcoming interview.
Training yourself to have the right mindset ingrained in your brain, but also remembering to actually follow it in the heat of the moment, is one of the hardest parts of dealing with anxiety. The good news is that if you are able to think positively, it will relieve so much of your anxiety and, for me, it can act as a calming influence.
We all make some mistakes, sometimes, but that doesn’t have to correlate with being unsuccessful. In an interview I had in April for a branch of Age UK, the CEO no less (!) asked me to tell her what I knew about the charity. And what was the only thing I could think of to say? ‘Oh, you’re a charity that helps old people.’
Somehow, though, I still got the internship despite the CEO telling me the application process had been highly competitive!
The trick here – and one that, I know, is the exact thing most people with social anxiety fear most – is to embrace the unexpectedness of the situation. Luckily, I was able to keep calm in the moment and didn’t have one of my dreaded mind blanks! I went on and explained a bit more about what I thought the organisation’s services were, and even though I was mostly bluffing and making super vague comments, the fact that I did carry on trying was something I was proud of – and it turned out to be all the employer was looking for in the end!
Another mindset I adopted that has genuinely helped me and others I know, is to think of the realistic worst case scenario, and imagine what you would do in that situation. Not only does thinking up terrible scenarios remind you just how unlikely they are and just how little you actually need to worry, but it also helps you feel prepared. Taking away that uncertainty is one of the most cathartic things I can do for my anxiety.
On the day
Speaking of feeling in control: preparation is key!
This could come in all shapes and sizes based on your personal anxiety issue. Take meds if you have them. Make sure you have a safe space where no one is likely to disturb your call. For the interview – and this is my personal favourite – actually write out, in full, the answers you’d like to use for a few common questions you think you’ll be asked. Write out also a list of questions you want to ask at the end. Take at least an hour before the interview to brainstorm several, as some may be answered naturally throughout the call if the employer wants to give you more information about their company. This way, with plenty of time and all your thinking already done for you, you’ll be sure not to have anything you truly need to panic about.
Of course, the tricky part of this is trying to trick your anxious brain, which always seems to be against you, into believing that you are not in danger. A solid plan for helping with this, which especially helps with social anxiety issues, is to talk to someone before your interview to get into a ‘social’ mood. Having a normal conversation with someone who you know makes you feel positive will bring you back to reality and shake away the nerves you are feeling about speaking to people.
Despite this post being about ways to combat and eventually try to get rid of our anxiety, I’d also like to stress that it’s not only understandable to feel nervous before interviews, but also normal. Even people who don’t have anxiety disorders feel terrified before these ordeals! As hard as it is, to a certain extent we will never be able to banish those nerves we feel before situations where we know we are going to be under pressure. It’s our body’s fight or flight syndrome, its way of telling us that we need to go out there and perform to the best of our ability. So, after you’ve done everything you can to calm yourself a little, there’s nothing left to do but to embrace those jitters in your stomach – they’re what make you human.
For extra bonus points, it can help to think about something fun or relaxing you’re planning to do after your interview is over, such as giving yourself some time by yourself in a quiet place to just sit, breathe and reflect. I’ve written a post on what I learned about giving myself alone time from living with social anxiety at university over on my blog.
Please also remember that I’m not a psychological professional, and if your anxiety does become completely uncontrollable or overwhelming, please remember that help is out there. Don’t be afraid to book a call with your GP who can prescribe meds if you don’t already take any – I did this, after years of thinking my condition ‘wasn’t bad enough’ to get help and ‘other people needed the doctor’s time more than me.’ Please know that this is NOT the way to think at all! I’m so much happier now that I’m on medication, so don’t forget that this is something you can consider asking for.
Some useful links to help…
Anxiety UK offer support with anxiety.
Very helpful grounding techniques that have really helped me, that you can choose from and use on the day:
SHOUT 85258 Text Line, for in-the-moment support for anyone undergoing severe mental health-related crises. You can text ‘SHOUT’ for free to 85258.
Samaritans have lots of resources or you can call them for free on 116 123
Thanks so much to Sabita for writing this post. You can find more reflections from other graduates here.