Dear AuSM Therapist,
Sometimes I find that going to new places or trying out a new event causes me a lot of anxiety. This is getting in the way of things like going to the doctor or following through on appointments, plus it makes it really hard to be social. Do you have recommendations for managing my anxiety about new experiences? I want to be out in my community, but right now it's too stressful.
Staying Stressed Inside
Dear Staying Stressed:
Yes, going to new places and events can be very challenging. One place to start is to plan ahead by checking out the website of the event or location so you can get a feel for what the new place looks like and where you can go if you need help or a sensory break. If you're particularly worried, you can call ahead and ask questions.
I next recommend writing a social narrative about the place or event. Social narratives include who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. If you know what you will be doing ahead of time, make sure to include this in the narrative, too. You also can ask someone else for help in writing the social narrative, especially if you know of someone who has been there before.
Here's an example of a social narrative: “I am going to meet a new therapist today. I will take some deep breaths before I drive there. I will drive to the office using the directions on my GPS. I know what the building looks like based on the picture on their website. When I walk in, I will say hello to the receptionist and give my insurance card. I will then wait for the therapist in the waiting room. To pass the time, I can pull out a fidget or play a game on my phone. The therapist will come get me when they’re ready. I will say hello to the therapist and walk into their office. I’ve written down what I want to say to the therapist ahead of time. I can pull this list out and reference it when I need to.”
It also can help to do what helps you relax before, during, and after going to a new place. This can include taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. You may want to give your muscles a chance to tense up for three seconds, then release. If headphones and fidgets help you relax, I recommend bringing those as well. You might bring a fidget you love, or ask a trusted friend to go with you. This person can provide social support by just listening or they can have a more active role in helping you relax or leave the situation.
Finally, it's good to have a plan around if you become too overwhelmed and don't feel like you can stay in the new situation. It is OK to leave early. You always can try again a different day or when you have more energy. Another option is to plan breaks so that you can manage when you're starting to become overwhelmed.
Best of luck on going to new places,
Sara Lahti, MA