Exploring Connection & Anxiety with Strangers – Interview with Davelle Lee, from Singapore

Davelle Lee has run a public ‘social anxiety-free’ blanket fort project to get people to engage with others and share their thoughts and feelings. In doing so, she challenged her own insecurities and capacities. Here, she shares more about her projects, which includes a podcast and talks about her experiences of social fears, growing up in Singapore.

I had been running the podcast for a while and felt like I was preaching to the choir because my listeners were people who were familiar with social anxiety or experienced it themselves. So I started to look for ways to reach a wider audience, but first I had to decide what kind of audience I wanted to court.

The festival I ran my first blanket fort at [in 2018] was called the Conscious Festival by Green is the New Black. The organisers advocate for conscious sustainable living in terms of environment, business, personal well being etc., and my message lined up nicely with their ethos. So I pitched the idea to them to create a cosy space for people at the festival who might get overwhelmed by the presence of too many other people.

I wanted to create an environment that was un-intimidating and could immediately give people a sense of safety. What came to mind was an episode of the TV series Community, in which Troy and Abel construct a labyrinth of bedsheets and blankets in their school dormitory that is quickly inhabited by other students and even faculty. Sure, the pair were accused of being immature for building their blanket fort at first, but the cover from the soft bed linen proved to appeal to large swathes of the adult population at campus.

I set out to recreate this feat IRL, hoping it would attract the same response with the Conscious Festival crowd – and thankfully it did. People would poke their heads in just to check the fort out, and then within moments they’d strip their shoes off and start to talk to me about their lives, their dreams and fears. And I’d listen, for hours and hours on end. Someone described the space as magical, which really moved me because that’s exactly what I’d hoped to achieve – to add a little bit of wonder into someone’s day, and to provide a little bit of solace.

After doing a few iterations of the blanket fort over the last two years, it was clear that I was ill-equipped to support some of those who visited. Sometimes, someone would come in with dark thoughts and a lot of hurt. I’m a good listener, but when they asked for advice, I didn’t know what to offer. So this year, I took a post-graduate diploma in psychotherapy to accumulate the experience and skills to guide others better. It’s been a really fruitful journey. I feel like I’m much better prepared to hold space for people now, and I’m looking forward to when I can run my blanket fort again.

~

I’ve always been a nervous kid. When I was in kindergarten, I had this habit of standing at the side of the playground and watching the other children play. If anyone came to talk to me or ask me to play, I would freeze up. I couldn’t even speak to them because I was just terrified of all these tiny humans. That’s shyness.

Not only that, I didn’t even want to play by myself, and looking back I think it was probably because I didn’t know what to do and I was afraid of being laughed at or criticised if I ended up playing “the wrong way”. This of course has nothing to do with being shy, but I would only find out much later in life what it was. 

So I had a lot of trouble making friends growing up because I was painfully shy, and then as I got older I learned that I had to talk to people or I wouldn’t have any friends so I did. By the time I got to university, I would say that most people couldn’t tell that I had once been really shy.

All that time I spent working on my shyness, I didn’t do a thing about my social anxiety. Because I just trusted that voice in my head – the snarky one that pointed out all the things I was saying and doing that was wrong, or embarrassing, or stupid – without questioning it. It seemed like she was protecting me from harm by telling me the truth about myself.

So thank God for university, because if there’s one thing that you get from doing a major in psychology is endless opportunities to psychoanalyse the crap out of yourself. And in the pages of my textbooks, I recognised that voice that was telling me that I wasn’t cool or smart or interesting enough. It had a name: social anxiety.

What is social anxiety? Social anxiety is really just the fear of looking stupid, of being judged, by other people. I want to clarify that social anxiety is not always a disorder. It can be, and when it is a disorder it is completely debilitating. But in my case, it isn’t, it’s just an aspect of my personality that’s heightened as compared to others.

This aspect is the tendency to overthink about what others think of you, and to catastrophize over it. We all compare ourselves with other people. How else do you know where you stand? I’m funny if I make people laugh more often than other people, I’m smart if I know the answers to more things than the next guy. With social anxiety, the comparison is almost consistently negative.

When I learned about this at school, for the first time, I realised that this voice in my head, my inner critic, was abnormally loud and bossy, and that she was ruling my life. That was a powerful turning point for me. I began to notice all the ways that this anxiety was preventing me from living life to the fullest (pardon the cliche).

Long story short, over the next few years I’d learned how to be more aware of that inner critic, to call her out every time she tried to stumble me, and to do things in spite of my discomfort. 

I wanted to share my truth about social anxiety through a medium that could best communicate my internal experience. The objective was twofold: I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and put myself out there, essentially the most masochistic thing someone with social anxiety could subject themselves to. Because I needed to grow, and this was the perfect challenge. The goal was also to help others who are fearful like me understand themselves better and in doing so, overcome their insecurity and anxiety. I felt like I had to set an example.

At the time, I was writing for a magazine and I thought about bringing my message to our editorial pitches. But the written word felt flat, insufficient. In hindsight my editors would probably have thrown out the idea anyway – it isn’t fashionable to be afraid of people.

I really love podcasts. They’re raw and intimate and they allow you to connect with an audience in a way that you just can’t with text alone. Because the human voice is, well, it’s the sonic essence of your soul pouring out of your body unfiltered.

So that’s the direction I chose. My little brother’s a musician in a band called Cosmic Child, and he’s been a huge blessing, supporting me with the sound design for the project. He taught me how to edit, and sent me off with a little handheld recorder to do my first episode. 

And here we are now. I’ve experimented with various formats and topics, and the podcast has evolved from simply raising awareness about social anxiety to trying to speak to our common humanity, whatever the heck that means. My latest series makes an attempt to tap into our universal frustration with the state of the world at present to draw some comfort from the tiny glimmers of optimism in these personal essays.

~

To give you a bit of context, what someone typically asks when they enter my blanket fort is, “So, what’s this about?” I introduce them to the concept of social anxiety and how all of us experience a fear of being judged to varying degrees. Then I explain how the blanket fort was designed to be a space that’s judgement-free and that they are free to be themselves and use the space however they deem fit.

At this point, many people will tell me that they don’t have social anxiety, but then quickly proceed to contradict themselves by telling me about situations in which they experience that fear of judgement – at work, in their friendships, and especially dealing with family. In families with very traditional values, it can be hard to have open and honest conversations. There are also a lot of rules, and an expectation of a certain level of propriety (e.g. one must never talk back to your parents). And while this isn’t inherently bad – some rules are good, they provide order and a sense of predictability – it can sometimes cause friction between generations. So this topic came up quite a bit: of parents being unable to accept the dreams, ambitions or lifestyles of their children, and children not knowing how to deal with the conflict with their parents.

A young man based in Malaysia told me that moving away from his family took a bit of an adjustment. He loves his parents and wanted to be a good son, but now realised he didn’t actually know what they expected of him. So he called his mother one day and asked, “What are the unspoken agreements that I have with you that I haven’t been fulfilling?” In other words, what were the things she thought he should be doing for her but was not. 

She said, “I wish you’d call every week.” And he asked, “Why didn’t you ask me to?” 

Her answer: “I always thought that if you missed me you would call me.” As a millennial, texting was his way of reaching out and showing her that he was thinking of her and it hadn’t occurred to him that what she needed in order to receive his love was a phone call.

And so he agreed to call her more. Then she asked him what unspoken agreements she had with him that she hadn’t been acting on. 

I adore the concept of speaking our unspoken agreements aloud so we can love one another better.

The subject of pursuing a career that aligns with one’s passion also came up often. People are burdened with the expectation (their own, and from others too) too that they must make a certain amount of money in order to sustain themselves and their families. At the same time, they worry that they are wasting their time in jobs that they don’t care about.

Conversely, it was really nice to listen to people talk about their passions. Whether it’s writing poetry, or making their own clothes, or saving wildlife, or starting a business. A lot of people are excited about their ideas but afraid to talk about them in case they are put down, or they don’t manage to accomplish what they set out to do.

~

I’m working on accumulating client hours to get certified as a therapist. If any of your friends needs one, let me know! I do not charge any fees. It’s been really tiring on top of my day job but it’s been really fulfilling too. I don’t think my calling is to be a therapist, but I do think that I can change people’s lives by teaching them how to have healthy conversations and creating safe spaces for them to do so. I’m trying to find out how to use my skills as a therapist (-to-be) and as a writer, and my experience with the blanket forts and podcast, to create something of value to offer to people that’s also a sustainable business.

Working in magazines was really fun. I got to meet and interview people from all walks of life, celebrities, doctors, financial experts, entrepreneurs, chefs, and also just everyday people with interesting stories. It also really challenged me to become a better writer.

The downside was that the magazines I worked for were pretty conservative (and we also have a high level of censorship here in Singapore), so the stories I pitched were often deemed inappropriate or not of value to the mainstream audience. I’m not proud of the countless inconsequential listicles (“10 ways to please your man”, or “7 things you must eat to prevent bloating”) I churned out on the regular during my time there. Also, it paid poorly and saving money was a struggle.

I left my job and freelanced for a year. That same year, I started the podcast. Then I decided I needed more stability and managed to find a government job as a communications officer.

Growing up, I worked part time jobs just like everyone else. I served frozen yogurt, and was a barista at a cafe, and waited tables at a restaurant. I worked at a childcare centre the year before I entered university. And then for a couple of years, I was a research assistant and project manager for a study on the development in children in different types of kindergartens. 

Davelle Lee’s writing and podcasts, which she creates in collaboration with a variety of people, including her friends in Singapore, can be found on her site, www.somescuffs.com.

Read about her reflections on her blanket fort project in her article, Build a Blanket Fort to Rediscover Connection

Voice training for anxiety symptoms

Voice acoustics are known to provide some indication of anxiety, such that automated acoustic analysis has been suggested as a diagnostic tool. A 2008 study added to growing research findings that higher pitch (fundamental frequency) and sharpness and lower rate of speech are indicators in social anxiety disorder, with slower rate of speech found to be the strongest indicator. It was suggested that the cognitive disruption of anxiety causing more frequent pauses in speech might be the hardest to mask in anxiety-provoking situations. Voice intensity or loudness was also examined in the study but not sufficiently consistently to draw conclusions.

Voice acoustics convey social status, personality and emotional state of a speaker to an audience and it plays a major role in audience judgements, especially in one-off situations, including judgements on passivity, intelligence, nervousness and truthfulness. Some studies suggest childhood speech impediments in early years are associated with higher rates of social anxiety disorder in later life, though more evidence is required on this. Recent studies suggest that social anxiety is found frequently amongst individuals who stutter. It has been suggested that stuttering increases vulnerability to social and psychological difficulties which can lead to bullying, rejection and other psychosocial harms and lead to shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem and withdrawal.

Voice activity has been suggested as a means of self-soothing through activating the vagus nerve, which is connected to the laryngeal muscles and which is the longest cranial nerve, running from the brain to the abdomen. It forms part of the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for regulating heart rate, breathing and digestion. Humming, chanting and singing are known to activate the vagus nerve, with a study suggestive that sufferers of severe depression might benefit from such voice work, alongside other treatments.

Voice acoustics as an indirect way to treat anxiety, through strengthening psychosocial capacity, rather than just measuring it, has been less studied. Improving voice intensity, pitch, and rate, may improve an individual’s capacity to convey a desired emotion or attitude, reducing fears of psychosocial harm of being misunderstood and poorly judged. It may also present improved capacity for social interaction, connection, resistance and support by reducing practical disabilities such as lack of audibility or comprehensibility. Having greater control over voice acoustics, namely, intensity and rate of speech, may enable individuals to control cardiovascular arousal in anxiety or depression-provoking situations.

Voice changes during experiences of fear and anxiety are thought to partly arise from physiological changes. Higher pitch of voice is sometimes attributed to a tautness of vocal fold and laryngeal muscles. Vocal fold tension and subglottal pressure, beneath, causes the folds to close more quickly, as air passes through, increasing pitch. Tension in pharynx and chest also affect the flow of air through the glottis which creates vibrations in the vocal folds that creates vocal sound. Too much air flow through the vocal chords reduces vibration and intensity of sound. Tension in the jaw and pharynx and even the amount of saliva in the mouth may affect the resonance of the voice.

A standard voice acoustic analysis for those experiencing anxiety, may help identify the need for a medical assessment by an Ear, Throat and Nose (ENT) professional. Physiological voice difficulties may have a wide range of causes, from damage to the vocal chords, to postnasal drip, allergy or adenoids.

Sufferers of anxiety with weak voice acoustics, whether general or situational, would likely benefit from training in breath technique and voice control, improving the pressure, vibration, resonance and articulation associated with strong voice acoustics. Working with a vocal coach or in a group, such as a choir, would, additionally, provide, potentially, safe social exposure contexts in which to test their capacities against their fear.

Such individuals would benefit from breathing training, using the diaphragm to control air flow. Vocal coaches will likely recommend semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT) training, involving applying resistance to phonation airflow by, for example, partially closing the mouth, causing vibrations to reflect back onto the top of the vocal chords, helping to optimise their vibration. Humming or phonations into a straw in water also can be used to improve resonance of voice by practising projecting sound into cavities in the skull. Reading or speaking aloud can be used to practice clear articulation.

Treating Anxiety in Both Individual and Social Contexts

Given the narrowness of affordable professional psychological support available, it is vital that those who experience fear and anxiety difficulties find ways of strengthening their own capacities. In the UK, most readily available for social anxiety disorder are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medication.

Even if available, given the socio-economic and other norms underlying treatments, their suitability may not be universal. In a recent blog post titled, Understanding Social Anxiety and Social Power, Nyteshade references the difference between people’s psychological capacities in social situations: “We are not all ‘neurotypical’ (I highly doubt I am); some of us are suffering a constant inner-battle. And we are not all the ‘neutral’ agents of this society, namely white and middle class. Being placed in the wrong social category is a high cause of anxiety…”

An inherent socio-economic and/or psychological capacity presumption of some CBT treatments for social anxiety disorder is that patients have safe social spaces in which to regularly expose and thus reduce their fears, to fulfil the behavioural aspect of the treatment. Another presumption in some CBT treatments is that most social fear that give rise to anxiety or phobia are by definition ‘cognitive distortions’ and unrealistic. The individual’s sense of vulnerability is, seemingly, judged from a ‘typical’ standard.

Klodo writes, in a blog post, titled, Flaws in CBT: “if you act shy people dont notice or are to busy to care? BULLSHIT. they all notice, many comment especially on your blushing , think you act weird. why is he so quiet, strange and never speaks first? Then they ignore you and want nothing to do with you.”

For those who feel as if they fall through the gaps in treatment, other approaches must be sought, including individual training. In a recently published piece titled The Plasticity of Well-Being, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison propose a framework for understanding and training in well-being with four parts: awareness, connection, insight and purpose: “These dimensions are central to the subjective experience of well-being and can be strengthened through training. In this respect, they can be likened to skills, and the cultivation of well-being to building a repertoire of skills.”

In their proposal, which they present as a starting point for further research and discussion, the researchers argue that lack of a state of awareness, which is estimated as 47% of time we spend in a state of distraction, is linked to a variety of ill-health outcomes and markers, including stress, anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They suggest that training in attention-based meditation and psychotherapy can boost meta-awareness – “awareness of the processes of conscious experience, such as the recognition that one is experiencing an emotion, a thought, or a sensory perception as it occurs in real time.”

Awareness of one’s thoughts activates, the researchers write, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that form part of the brain’s central-executive network and, when resulting in self-regulation of emotions, specifically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). Training, they argue, can develop these neurological processes with different effects, they suggest, depending on the type: “Focused attention meditation, for instance, is linked to reduced activations in regions of the default-mode network (DMN), a network associated with mind wandering and self-referential thought, while open monitoring meditation is not, suggesting that meta-awareness may lead to reduced mind wandering in some cases and to meta-aware mind wandering in others.”

The researchers also present their two more social dimensions of well-being, connection and purpose, in a subjective manner, suitable for personal training through, for example. compassion-based meditation or as part of therapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is likely that, to be most effective, these social states would require some form of social or community integration, which the researchers leave open for: “It is also likely that individual differences in baseline characteristics play an important role in moderating the impact of strategies to cultivate well-being. We envision a future “precision-medicine” approach that tailors training protocols for different types of individuals based on baseline individual differences.”

This framework by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a wider approach to treating anxiety disorders and other mental health illnesses, looking beyond cognitive approaches with rigid underlying norms and standards of psychological capacity, which can exclude some. It points towards a social-individual understanding of well-being and treatment but, in the absence of this ideal, for now, those who suffer from fears and anxieties can pursue training to improve their own capacities, alongside other support they may get. This may be affirmations or mantras, meditation, prayer, therapy or any other method that works upon vulnerabilities.

Resilience and capacity as part of overcoming anxiety and depression

If fear is made up of a mismatch between perception of threat and capacity to deal with it, it makes sense to treat fear or anxiety disorders with a two-pronged approach. The first is the typical cognitive behavioural therapy approach of rationalising and testing perceptions. The other would be to strengthen actual threat resistance – through improving self-esteem, hopefulness and psychological resistance. The former is a highly cognitive and more individualistic approach but, the latter, may not always be, relying, at times, on engaging more directly the subconscious and being part of a social community.

In a recent blog post, What a shame she’s fucked in the head, Emily Lawrence, who experiences social anxiety and depression symptoms, writes of discussing the ‘five second rule’ with her therapist, to fight a sort of cognitive paralysis: “if you keep thinking about wanting to do something for more than a few seconds, your brain will start to “kill” the thought or instinct you have, and you’ll start thinking of all the reasons why you shouldn’t do that particular thing.”

Another psychological technique she discusses is visualisation, to counter feelings of hopelessness: “So before I go to sleep at night, I need to visualize what I want my morning to be like, and visualize myself doing the things I want to accomplish that next day, instead of simply worrying that I’m not going to get anything done because of the embedded thought in my head that is constantly telling me that I’m “too depressed” and “incapable.”

Vincent, in his recent blog post, Affirmations to protect my sensitivity against hostile work and social interactions, discusses handling workplace hostility. He rationalises his personal affirmations of being ‘normal’, ‘smart’ and ‘strong’: “I remember that if people attempt to insult me, or dismiss me, it’s because of their own insecurities and fears. It is a way for them to feel “big”, because somehow I have made them feel “small”.”

He also discusses putting on “emotional, mental and spiritual armour” before social situations where he thinks he might face hostility of some sort: “By mentally preparing myself for the possibility of hostile behaviour, I am then ready for it and can manage and respond to it in a calm honest manner.”

Such approaches do not just look at threat perception (or, in the case of despairing feelings, hopelessness perception) but, also, psychological resilience or capacity. I think that it is the combined approach – perhaps, describable as cognitive and emotional, that may sometimes be most helpful in reducing our fears.

In a recent blog post, Owning my awkwardness, Adrianna Carlesimo, finds that rather than completely denying her perception of her moments of social awkwardness, she investigates the shame she associates with it: “I can be lovable BECAUSE OF, rather than in spite of, my awkwardness. This is a new belief I’m working on internalizing, and honestly, it’s a relief to stop trying to convince myself that maybe I wasn’t actually awkward.”

She describes an incident when she began to blush and “say a few awkward things” during a work zoom call with a client team after their CEO praised her work. A person on the zoom call commented on her blushing. Adrianna wrote: “While this is the type of situation that years ago would have me ruminating for hours, days, weeks on end, wanting to curl up into a ball every time I remembered it; today, I just felt slightly embarrassed immediately after the moment passed, and then just laughed to myself. I was able to find my inner peace before the end of the 60 minute call.”

Similarly, Emily Lawrence, describes gradually coming to terms with her difficulties with social interaction and being quiet: “Like, yes, I am an introvert; I am quiet; what fucking difference does it make?? Yes, talking is hard for me. Words are hard. It’s always been hard. But at the end of the day, I know that I’m trying to improve, so I’ve really just started to stop caring about what others think about me, and am realizing that the right people will understand and be patient with me.”

Rather than simply a cognitive change to more realistic threat perception, reducing the shame and vulnerability of social difficulties may sometimes take emotional resilience and this too may need to be actively worked on, often, with support of others. JN Manson writes, in their recent post, High Anxiety: “But the greatest benefit of the CBT process was the opportunity to talk to someone smart, who has empathy and deep understanding, that was the most priceless gift…”