5 Stigma-Breaking Poems for Social Anxiety
If you live with social anxiety, you’re far from alone. According to Mental Health America, 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with the condition. People with social anxiety may experience enhanced fear of rejection and judgment, as well as physical side effects like nausea and panic attacks. As a result, socially anxious people often avoid big events, groups of people, and performances or public speaking—causing a significant impact on their daily lives.
Of course, poetry has a long history of illuminating often overlooked or unaddressed realities. Social anxiety stands out as a prominent topic in today’s poetry, which can have a powerful effect on readers. In fact, this representation and dialogue may reduce stigma, lessen symptoms of social anxiety, and even make people more likely to reach out for help. These five poems provide comfort and shatter the silence surrounding mental health.
1. “Sanctuary” by Jean Valentine
This poem by the beloved Jean Valentine sparkles with both intimacy and authenticity. The poem concerns itself with some of life’s biggest questions: Is there an afterlife? How does one deal with uncertainty? In spite of these weighty topics, Valentine finds solace in the idea that everyone deals with these concerns, and imagines what would happen if we pushed past social anxiety and talked about them with each other. The result is a poem that sheds light on the universality of anxiety and the struggle to connect, while also maintaining the importance of this connection and empowering readers to find courage.
“You / who I don’t know / I don’t know how to talk to you / —What is it like for you there?” asks Valentine. “Here … well, wanting solitude; and talk; friendship— / The uses of solitude. To imagine; to hear. / Learning braille. To imagine other solitudes. / But they will not be mine; / to wait, in the quiet; not to scatter the voices— / What are you afraid of? / … Yes I know: the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to / follow it back to life.”
2. “Reverence” by Alicia Cook
People with social anxiety may be more likely to be comforted by routine, and may also favor a few close, one-on-one friendships. In “Reverence,” Alicia Cook—who is well-known for writing about mental health—celebrates these bonds and their often life-long nature.
“The more people think they know me, the more I gravitate back toward familiarity; to the people who don’t expect anything from me. Who let me laugh or cry or nap. Who eat grilled cheese with me and see me in my glasses. Who allow me to be silly and unkempt,” writes Cook.
3. “Clatter” by Neil Hilborn
Spoken word poet Neil Hilborn went viral in 2013 for his poem “OCD.” Since then, the refreshingly honest poet has continued to write about mental health, including social anxiety. In “Clatter,” Hilborn accepts his anxiety, acknowledging that he can’t imagine himself without it. The poem also follows a day-in-the-life of someone with social anxiety, a detailed and vulnerable description that others may relate to.
“It is impossible to imagine a color you have not seen. / I can’t call my mother because she makes me panic,” Hilborn writes. “. . . I complete five crosswords a day because it stops the panic. / Trucks are downshifting on main street. / Most of what I do, I do to stop the panic. / I never cry about things outside of my head because they all seem so far away.”
4. “I Don’t Own Anxiety, But I Borrow It Regularly” by Kelli Russell Agodon
In this cleverly titled poem, Kelli Rusell Agodon captures the fleeting, unpredictable nature of panic and how to react to it. In fact, she casts anxiety as a person, depicting how it would show up at a party. These quirky details balance the often ominous feeling of social anxiety with much-needed levity. Despite the fact that anxiety arrives suddenly, Agodon conveys an almost ritualistic response in this poem, one that may soothe those with social anxiety.
“We cannot predict our tragedies. / We can’t plan a party for the apocalypse / because friends of the apocalypse know / the apocalypse always shows up / uninvited and with a bag of half-eaten chips,” writes Agodon.
“This is why some of us wake up / in the middle of the night looking for a saint— / and maybe your saint is the moon, / or maybe your phone, or maybe / it’s that moment you walk out the door / to look up at the stars / just to prove to the heavens you’re still alive.”
5. “Here Comes Someone Whose Name I Should Know” by John Kenney
John Kenney published his Love Poems for Anxious People series as a humor piece for The New Yorker. In doing so, Kenney takes a unique approach and looks at social anxiety through a more light-hearted lens. While it’s important to recognize the serious aspects of mental health, applying humor and playfulness to a situation can make it easier to start necessary and pivotal conversations.
“My God, you’re almost here. / And I will need to introduce you / to the person next to me / whose name may be Beth. Or Valentina. I’m not sure. / Here’s a quick thought— / not about your name / but about the urge I have right now / to just start running,” writes Kenney in this relatable poem.
“That would be a weird thing to do, though, / at a children’s birthday party. / But not as weird as what I do. / Which is stuff two cupcakes / into my mouth / so as not to be able to speak / but then choke / and spit them out / onto the man / whose name, it turns out, is Alan. / Which I now will never forget.”
If you need help treating or coping with social anxiety, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine at 800-950-6264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.