What Doing Whole30 Taught Me About Social Anxiety—Namely, That I Have It


By Sarah Ashley, PureWow

Last summer, after road-tripping around the American Southwest, surviving on fast food and tequila, my boyfriend and I decided to embark on an even more daunting adventure: a couple’s diet. Something to force us to eat healthy, cut back on booze and generally detox. Enter: Whole30.

The idea behind Whole30 is to completely eliminate certain foods (sugar, dairy, legumes, alcohol, etc.) from your diet for 30 days so that you can slowly introduce them back and see how your body feels. The program’s tough language (“Beating cancer is hard. This is not hard.” Message received!) and restrictive food list didn’t freak us out; it pumped us up. We made a pact on Sunday night to start the next day.

However.

On Monday morning, my boss reminded our office about a team dinner scheduled for that coming Wednesday, aka fancy food and drinks catered at her swanky home.

I immediately G-chatted my boyfriend declaring I’d have to start the diet on Thursday, because of this mid-week dinner. I made excuses like, “There will be bread and cheese at this thing,” and, “I can’t be the only one who skips dessert!”

But if I was being honest with myself, it wasn’t just the cornucopia of carbs and dairy that gave me pause. The truth was that I dreaded being at a work function sober. It had absolutely nothing to do with the food—at that moment, there was no better alternative to taking the edge off at a social event with co-workers than sipping a cocktail.

But Kevin put his foot down. He called me out on my commitment. If I backed out on day one, I wouldn’t make it a week, let alone 30 days. I hated that he was right, but I recommitted.

At dinner that Wednesday, I felt awkward. I nodded more and spoke less. I drank water and hoped no one noticed. Why? I felt like an imposter. Like a girl pretending to have a good time, even though I was having a good time. Wasn’t I? Still, I left as soon as dinner ended, while everyone else stuck around. Work on Thursday was business as usual. I did it.

Then came the shows.

As a comedian, performing shows during the week usually means being at a bar where I get a discount on drinks. My habit, for years and years, had been to grab a drink as soon as I walked into these spaces. On Whole30, that wasn’t an option.

At my first show after starting the diet I grabbed a seltzer from the bar. Instantly, I was in my head. Would I be as fluid on stage without my vodka soda? Would I be as comfortable? As funny? Then, an even scarier thought: How would I talk to people after the show without a drink in my hand?

Performing on stage is one thing. The audience laughs (or doesn’t) then leaves, and I never have to see them again. Talking to friends is a different beast. They’re my friends. I want to see them again. Their opinions—and opinions of me—matter to me. What if, without alcohol, I turn out to be boring?

Before the show even started, I wanted to leave—not to avoid a clunky performance, but to escape any impending social scenarios in which I would have to talk to friends. I had always been great at small talk, joking with pals at parties and engaging in riveting conversation with people. But now, I dreaded coming up with something entertaining to say.

What was happening?!

I had never—not once—considered myself someone with social anxiety. I majored in theater for crying (and dancing and singing) out loud! I perform improv comedy on stage every week. And yet there I was, fearing heart palpitations without a little social lubrication. Alcohol had been the energy drink that got me through social situations where I felt exposed, awkward or unwanted. I’m a shy person unless I’m on stage playing a character or off stage sipping my liquid courage. Even beyond feeling buzzed, having something to do while talking to people in social settings was equally as comforting. I needed to hold a drink in front of me as protection from too much exposure, sipping during pauses to offset any silence.

I stopped going out as much. I did fewer shows. Attended fewer parties. Arrived later and left earlier. Secluded myself in my house, with my cats, sipping tea. My mind felt clearer when I woke up in the mornings. My body seemed trimmer and more agile. I felt good.

But I also developed major FOMO, which stressed me out. When I had a bad day or felt left out, the urge to “treat” myself to a big glass of wine reared its head. These were the moments I caught myself trying to avoid dealing with what was really going on. In the past, instead of facing the truth (I’m afraid I’m not funny or interesting), or dealing with reality (embracing social situations sober, rather than hiding from them), I had always turned to alcohol (everyone has bad days; that’s why we have WINE! #wine #ohwell).

Alcohol allowed me to switch gears into extrovert hyperdrive. And for the first time in my life, it dawned on me how draining social interactions were for the introvert hiding in plain sight. Using alcohol to get me through social settings, instead of staying at home and focusing my energy on personal projects or my general well-being, had taken a bigger toll on me over the years than I thought. I was compartmentalizing my anxieties so thoroughly and deeply, I didn’t even realize it.

At its core, Whole30 is an elimination experiment: take these foods out of your life and see how you great you feel. But it became so much more than food. Eliminating behaviors in my life lifted a fog over my own poorly kept secret. There was nowhere to hide. I was more with myself—more present—than I’d been in a very long time, and I couldn’t even seek comfort in a can of chickpeas (legumes).

Thirty days went by—slowly—but I completed the challenge. At this point in Whole30, you’re allowed to introduce banned foods back into your life, but I felt like that life, that worldview, had shifted. This wasn’t about bread anymore. This had been an exasperating exercise in ripping away layers that I’d used to protect myself, and for 30 days I felt more naked and vulnerable than I thought I could bear. But once you get used to the cold, you can stay outside longer. With perspective, I can now see that holding a vodka tonic was like wearing a gorgeous pair of dangling diamond earrings while shivering in the nude—it doesn’t solve the problem, but it looks pretty damn sexy.

As I introduced alcohol back into my life, I was more mindful about it. I thought of it more like an accessory, asking myself, do I actually need this? Do I want this?

That question is hard to answer, and it will probably always be difficult. Is it my social anxiety responding? Or my affinity for a fine wine? I don’t always know. And maybe those two things will forever be entwined.

What I do know is that a huge part of myself was hiding in plain sight, and now I can see it. I can only imagine what trying the Pegan diet will enlighten me about. But I think for now I have enough to work with.


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