Fear in the Coffee Shop

Avoidance due to social anxiety can be more complex than being terrified of a situation. As one who chooses a street to walk down, instead of the shortcut of an alley, avoidance can arise from a cost-benefit analysis, weighing up risk, vulnerability and discomfort – drawing from memories of past experiences.

I avoid coffee shops because, due to my social anxiety symptoms and sense of social vulnerability, the cost seems to outweigh the benefit, in the moment. However, in the interests of exposing myself to the situation and in the hope that my experience will counter my expectations of fear, I sometimes try to go.

Choosing the coffee shop: I choose a very quiet one which I have been to before. They are even quieter due to Covid-19. It is a chain shop and I am familiar with the process of buying and sitting down and some of the items sold.

Checking the staff: I immediately try to identify how busy the place is and who will serve me and their threat level. I have a very personal set of assumptions that I rely on based on, for example, age, sex, appearance, sociability, manner and ethnicity. I feel safer interacting with older women and am most fearful, generally, of men. A threat people pose, in this situation, is of making me feel humiliated, that is, being treated as lesser. Perhaps, there is a more fundamental threat which is subconscious and triggers the fear in the first place.

Incidents that are embedded in my memory include a young male barista, in the same chain shop, at a differently location, suddenly grinning at me when I made my order in what I interpreted as amusement at my nervous appearance. Other memories that no doubt influence my fear are of trying to order food or drinks in fast food outlets or, especially, noisy pubs and not being heard, despite repeated efforts.

Choosing what I want: I am by nature indecisive and fear causes dysfunction in my thinking and feeling, so I do not know whether I am hungry/thirsty or not and I do not know what I want to order. I feel no desire for food or drink. My attention on entering the shop was almost entirely on assessing the threat levels, that I unthinkingly pass the overpriced snacks on the shelf. At the counter, covered by transparent plastic, a young woman wearing a cap and a plastic face mask greets me cheerfully. Fear intensifies at entering the social interaction and I cannot think clearly. I am looking at the board on the wall advertising different types of coffees and other drinks but I do not process the information. I do not ask for time to try to read and think, because, partly, I wish to hide my fear and confusion and, partly, I know that, even if I ask for time, I will still struggle to read and process the information.

Ordering: I am wearing a cloth face mask and looking through a plastic sheet barrier. Something about my appearance makes the young barista frown, as if concentrating in anticipation of my words being inaudible or incomprehensible. I suppose it is because I have made a split delay in speaking which is noticeable. Or, I wonder, is it because I look tired or tense? I order green tea because it feels easy to order, I have ordered it before, it is supposedly healthy and it is relatively cheap. My voice is steady but sounds emotionless and false, to me. However, she hears my words and I say thanks in the same forcedly calm voice. I feel fake and a familiar sense of shame and being detached from others is growing in me.

I pay but do not read the price on the till. I consider asking for a receipt but as I am not sure I need one and thinking it is easier not to ask, I do not. I retreat from the counter, glad that the most frightening part is over.

Consumption: I decide to sit at a table behind a column so that I am obscured from the direct view of the baristas. Normally, I sit in a more open place but I wonder if I will feel more comfortable in a private spot. I find I do feel safer but am aware when the two baristas on duty move to a position where they can see me.

I drink the green tea, which I don’t enjoy the taste of. I observe a middle-aged couple, possibly partners, ordering and sitting near me. I notice the confidence with which they order and they begin to argue with each other about their order. They have ordered cakes/pastries and drinks. I also notice the confidence of the baristas. I imagine myself serving behind the counter and the fear I would experience if a middle-aged working class man addressed me. “Would you like chocolate on that?” the barista asks another middle-aged man, ordering a takeaway: ‘why not?’ he says. A woman orders medium soya latte. She sounds so confident and natural to me.

I start thinking of the decor, as I usually do, in the shop. I am appalled by the idea of working in the coffee shop. Not only do I think of my fear of a stream of demanding customers, some, perhaps, irritable or angry, but also the fakeness of the shop’s decoration. The large framed photographs and other images depict, I think, Mediterranean suburban or village cafe culture. One near me shows an old man sitting on chair with his distended belly beneath high trousers and two walking sticks by his side. The images suggest a slow pace of life, warm weather and close community. What I see in the shop is something near the opposite. It is all but empty, the furniture and photos are cheap and the service is based on fast-food culture. I feel no community and it is cold outside. I feel that I could not bear to work here – but, I also wonder if you can come to terms with it, like any workplace. I wonder what pride one can feel working in such an artificial and fake setting.

I listen to the baristas talking. One is a young English woman and the other a slightly older woman with an accent which I can’t identify. I did not process what they looked like and when they pass by, sweeping or clearing something, I avoid looking at them for fear of giving away my nervousness. I notice that the ‘foreign’ barista is chiding the English woman for being slow. I cannot follow the conversation and assume that it is being said in jest. I cannot imagine the confident English woman being bullied. I come to think about myself again and knowing I would be slow and confused and, likely, susceptible to bullying, pressure or humiliation. I don’t let myself think about the bad experience I had working in a retail store maybe a decade ago.

I finish my tea and decide to leave. I have a free day and will, perhaps, look in a shop before heading home. I get up to go and want to acknowledge the staff. I hope one will look at me, so I can nod and say thanks. If they are looking, it feels easier. Neither are looking and I try to say thank you, anyway. However, I pull out of it, as I start, so that it was probably inaudible. Neither looked up from what they were doing as I leave.

Outcome: Whilst nothing especially negative occurred, the experience has reinforced my view that the cost outweighs the benefit of drinking at a coffee shop on my own. I experienced mental confusion and dysfunction at the point of ordering. The barista frowned before I spoke, raising my self-consciousness and hurting my self-esteem. I did not enjoy the green tea and was not able to relax or sit comfortably as I drank, due to fear of the baristas and thoughts about the decor and self-conscious and self-reflective thoughts, focused around my fears. My challenge for the future must be to try this again but challenge the specific negative incidences of the experience by adjusting my behaviour, if I can.

Looking for Work and Managing Anxiety and Trauma Symptoms – Interview

Being multilingual and digitally adept can enable one to work from home as a self-employed person but, as this interview suggests, maintaining a stable income can be difficult. Whilst the social demands of office and other types of job can be difficult for someone who experiences anxiety and/or trauma symptoms, an isolated work environment presents its own challenges. The following is a collation of answers provided to me via an online interview with a multilingual individual who has been self-employed for the past few years and experiences anxiety and trauma symptoms and who is currently looking for a full-time job.

I am technically self-employed and have been for a long time but I’m currently not getting enough work to actually make a living. Therefore I’ve been applying for jobs as I’m hoping to find a full-time job. I look at job advertisements at least once a week, usually more often than that and see if there is anything interesting. I normally use Google search to find ads but I sometimes look at more specific websites, such as Reed. I also have a Linkedin profile and I think it’s pretty good for finding ads for roles that match your experience. The role I’m looking for doesn’t necessarily have to be similar to my earlier jobs. I am hoping to find something office-based and the most interesting sectors for me are IT, languages and finance.

I had a video call interview some weeks ago. I remember being awfully nervous but once it started everything went quite well in my opinion. The person who interviewed me was very positive and smiled a lot which I think made it easier for me. There were a few questions about what I’m currently doing and what I know about the role so far. In terms of experience and language skills it would have been really ideal for me as they were looking for a bilingual person. I still don’t know the actual reason why I wasn’t put forward to the next interview, I imagine the recruitment agency had already found someone suitable as I soon noticed the ad was not open for applications anymore. It came as a surprise and I obviously wasn’t happy about it but job search has never been particularly easy for me so part of me is aware that things like this can happen.

They hadn’t scheduled a second interview with me but I received an email saying that I’ve been successful and they’re happy to have another interview with me. I received this email from the recruitment agency. Then a few days later I received another email telling me that there is no interview due to an earlier application for a different role I applied for directly with the same company and that because they already have my CV and profile on their system the recruitment agency cannot do anything about it. It sounded quite bizarre but I think they already found someone for the role as I saw the advertisement wasn’t open for new applications. Or maybe they simply didn’t like my earlier CV.

My experience includes working in customer service in call centres, sales and a short while working as a market research analyst. I’ve been self-employed for almost three years now I think although it hasn’t always been a very stable income as there’s not always enough work or projects. I enjoyed the freedom it gave me but it also made me quite isolated as I’ve been working from home. My work has involved different types of language and IT projects, such as audio transcription, search engine result evaluation and data entry.

I feel I got lucky. I was headhunted for my first (self-employed) project as they were looking for people with specific language skills. They must have found my details on one of the job sites. Once I took part in more projects I would get contacted by companies. There are also websites where I have applied for similar work. I didn’t require any other financial support until recently when my health got worse so I was on Universal Credit but I am feeling better now.

I am a native speaker of Finnish. I also speak Swedish, Russian and French although not fluently. I’ve always enjoyed learning languages. So I guess that makes five languages with English included. It’s mainly been language-related work but I guess good knowledge of grammar and writing skills can help too. Although those are related to languages.

I suffer from anxiety and trauma. I have had to leave a job before when I was feeling too anxious. There have also been managers who have not understood mental health very well. My energy levels have not always been great either because of not getting enough sleep so keeping a full-time job often has required a lot of effort. Currently I am in a much better place. Last winter was a difficult time for my mental health but I’ve had some therapy since then which has helped me a lot.

I have worked in call centres before so I should be used to talking on the phone. It really depends on the type of phone call. In call centre jobs it wasn’t as hard as I learnt what I was meant to say in each situation. However, I once had an analyst role where I had to make phone calls to companies and request data, that made me very nervous and I had to leave the role in two months. Social interactions in general can be difficult too with colleagues but it really depends on the type of people I work with. There was once a colleague that could be considered a bully.

I mentioned in some of my jobs that I have issues with anxiety but there was no particular support that I wanted. In one company the HR person was very understanding as she had similar issues herself. However, I ended up leaving that job in two months as it was very stressful. I was never directed to any kind of therapy or counselling by managers or colleagues and to some of them I had already told I was getting therapy through the NHS. My symptoms would include sleeping difficulties due to anxiety and feeling very tense.

 I did really well in school until around the age of 14 or 15. I struggled a lot with presentations we had to make for school as I got really anxious. Exams weren’t that easy either. I had some friends but they changed throughout the years as I went to different schools. I went to university in Scotland and I studied economics. I didn’t do well at all. I felt tired most of the time.

I grew up in Finland and moved to the UK to go to university at the age of 19. Whilst culturally those countries aren’t that hugely different as they’re both in Europe I still found the transition of moving here difficult because of anxiety issues and low energy levels. I feel comfortable these days.

The only support I had was the GP clinic. I wasn’t very well aware back then how bad my mental health was and I was more focused on physical health and energy levels. I only got help for mental health after I had graduated from university. I’m glad I have more knowledge on mental health these days.

I probably got into photography when I had my second mobile phone and the camera it had was much better than in the first one I had. I started making YouTube videos one winter as I didn’t have many other interesting activities or hobbies. The frequency varies depending on if I have work and my energy levels. I often run out of ideas on what type of videos to make. Some other interests I have would be museums and I guess languages.

Poems from September – 17th September 2020

Wind in the leaves
the sun follows

Up the gentle hill,
smiling

A corner
for laughter

A corner
for loss

A corner
for sleeping

A corner
for seeing

17/09/20

~

The weeping willows
where grey wagtails leap

September’s laugh
a quiet lake.

Ducks sleep in the shade
with crumbling leaves.

The sky of cries
and poplar trees.

13/09/20

~~

Time to leave

Light through the leaves

Pressure of the air

Many paths and trees

11/09/20

Poems from an Empty Building – 6 September 2020

Diamond bird
in the courtyard.

Grass under the trees.

Morning at the gates,
pigeon pink.

Light through the windows.

06/09/20


The leaves of the river
flood scent.

As morning bees gather
we are awoken.

Pearls scattered in the grass.

Winds bringing rain.

Away, footsteps fall.

28/08/20


On a long table
the sea.

With paintings on the walls

Golden sun
black moon.

Stone figures overhead.

06/09/20