Anxiety manifests itself in many different ways. Though some people’s experiences will inevitably overlap, everyone’s experience of anxiety will be different. Everything in this post is simply my experience, as I fully appreciate that my experiences won’t match other people’s, and what works for some won’t work for others. But, I do believe there is an overlap between the bookish world and the world of mental health – in the prevalence of self-help books, in the escapism of reading, and in the anxiety-induced 3am book purchases.
As you can probably tell from the title, I live with social anxiety, typically defined somewhere along the lines of nervousness in social situations. It is not the same as shyness, and is not simply a fear of public speaking. I have struggled with talking comfortably (or at all) with anyone I don’t know or speaking in groups of anywhere above about five people. I was previously unable to pay in shops or takeaways without someone else with me, make or answer phone calls, and generally exist in anywhere slightly crowded. Shopping, when absolutely necessary, became an Olympic event: could I buy everything I wanted without having to say ‘excuse me’ to anyone, without being asked if I needed anything, and use a self-checkout to avoid a till?
I’ve now been at university for two years, where not speaking to anyone you don’t know and getting someone else to go shopping for you is quite difficult, so I’ve had to work on it. A lot of things still make me very anxious but other things, which were previously completely unbearable, I can manage with minimal stress. I’m happy to pop to the shops if I’ve run out of something, and I’ll collect the weekly Chinese without any bother. Crowds still make me nauseous, and university presentations are the bane of my existence, but I make it through them – they are not completely debilitating.
Over the last year, one thing I’ve been doing a lot more often is visiting charity shops. I have become quite obsessed with checking every charity shop I pass, constantly on the lookout for bargain books. Small, often crowded, shops that definitely don’t have a self-checkout are not my favourite places, but with all the time I have spent in them, I have definitely noticed a decrease in my overall anxiety whilst shopping.
Shopping has always been the sort of middle group between mildly anxious and debilitatingly anxious for me – a struggle but manageable. When I first started charity shopping, I had to really psych myself up to actually enter the shop. It was a physical effort just to get through the door, and I would scan the shelves as fast as I could before either slipping back out or awkwardly making a purchase. Now, I wander leisurely about, taking my time to look at every book, sometimes going back through them just in case. I am filled with excitement when I see a book I’d really like, rather than the dread I felt when I first started going, as finding a book I wanted meant I had to pay for it. Over several months, through small steps and the design of charity shops, my confidence has grown and my anxiety is still there, but it has definitely dwindled.
Never Enough Space
I’m As previously stated, I hate crowded places. Just thinking about somewhere crowded now makes me inadvertently cringe a little bit, even though I’m sat alone in my room, far away from people. Charity shops are generally small shops with too much stock for the amount of space they have. This means that extra racks of clothing and kitchenware can be placed along what would usually be the walkway, and there isn’t enough space to get anywhere without asking people politely to move. I’m the kind of person that immediately abandons an isle in a supermarket if there is another person near the item I want, and come back for it later. Sometimes I completely forget about it, because I’d rather go without than risk the awkward encounter with another human being. But, in charity shops, my desire to find bargain books supersedes my fear of saying ‘excuse me’ to other people, and gradually I have become far more confident at slipping between people in busy areas, saying ‘excuse me’ when necessary, and awkwardly hovering behind the book area if another person is currently searching the shelves. I also won’t be intimidated into leaving before I’ve finished looking through all the books if there is someone else behind or next to me, which I often did in all other shops.
Small Talk in Tiny Towns
I live in two relatively small towns. The kind of places that give you tiny village vibes, where everyone knows everyone and the everyone’s darkest secrets are somehow public knowledge. The charity shop volunteers are the kind of people that can greet everyone in a 15 mile radius by name, and are aware of the latest scandals, divorces and who-knows-what. They are always exceptionally friendly and love to gossip. They greet you when you come through the doors (somehow the tills are also always by the entrance??) and, if you do buy something, they will have a nice chat with you about what books you bought, your opinion on Brexit (at the time anyway, we’ve all forgotten it now) and how rubbish the weather has been lately. The kind of small talk that is my. Literal. Worst. Nightmare. Or, it was. Once again, the desire to treat myself on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning to a trip to the closest charity shop (literally 10 minutes from my house) has forced me to repeatedly interact with the two very nice women that work there. Not only will I respond to their greeting if I walk in the shop, I will even initiate it. I still find it a little awkward, but I am happy to have a chat about my latest purchases and the weather (hint: it’s always rubbish) and I don’t feel like I will actually spontaneously combust with stress at the prospect of opening my mouth.
All By Myself
That sounds more dramatic than it’s supposed to be. It’s not always the case either – if I’m at home for the weekend or the holidays, my family will absolutely be forced to join me in any charity shop I see, no matter where we are or what we are doing out. What can I say, I’m addicted! But, at university, or when I’m off for whatever reason and no-one else is, I usually go charity shopping on my own. No one can speak for me so if I want to buy something (which I usually do); I will have to speak to the person on the till. There’s no option to deflect to someone else. Making myself enter these situations has made me grow more accustomed to them, and it has gradually got a lot easier.
The ‘Certainty’ of Books
When I really, really hated shopping, it was really easy to find excuses not to go into a shop. Sentences like “Oh, there won’t be anything I like anyway” or “I’m trying to save money at the moment” were frequent justifications to prevent having to go into a shop. They do not work in charity shops. I’ve never been in a charity shop where there haven’t been any books, and I’ve found some great books even when they have only a small selection. I have definitely been in many charity shops and not bought anything. I have also been known to walk out of a single shop with 6 or 7 books. I definitely leave with at least 1 book the majority of the time so, generally, there is something that I like. And also, the prices for secondhand books is usually between 50p and £3.00 – even on a student budget I can afford a few books on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Because I am highly likely to leave a shop with at least 1 new book, it makes it a lot easier to justify the stress of going, whilst I am less likely to justify going into a clothes shop because I tend not to buy anything, or spend money on things just because I feel like I need to justify going.
Reframing Shopping as Fun
Searching for books in charity shops can take a bit of time, and be a little bit like searching for a needle in a haystack. You can be greeted with unorganised, towering stacks of books shoved into any space possible. If all shopping involved just throwing things into any available space and hoping customers can find what they need, I’d probably have spent even more time crying in supermarkets (yes I did say even more). I usually find looking for things in supermarkets/clothes shops that I can’t find very stressful, and even more stressful if I can find it and there’s someone stood in front of it. So, really, charity shopping should be very stressful. But, it’s not. Hunting for books, taking the time to scan all of the titles and searching through the books is actually pretty calming, contrary to my general personality. Obviously, I love finding books I really want to read, or picking up books I’ve never seen before, but I also like spotting books I already own, or have seen a lot on booktube/bookstagram and maybe don’t want to pick up. Even if I don’t buy anything, I tend to leave the shop feeling happier and less stressed than when I went in.
I am now fully obsessed with charity book shopping, and I am having serious withdrawal symptoms after not being in one for over 3 months. Charity shops have been very affluential both in the large size of my tbr, and the small size of the anxiety I feel when I have to go shopping. A win-win, in my opinion. I still live with social anxiety; a lot of social situations still give me the kind of nausea-inducing, heart-pounding type of anxiety I’d rather avoid, but it is far less debilitating, and I cope with an awful lot more than I could a couple of years ago. I am a little worried that the current state of the world will set me back a bit – I’m shielding so I haven’t left the house in over 12 weeks, let alone tried to brave a socially distanced supermarket. Even my most confident friend told me she ended up crying and leaving the shop because it was so stressful, which doesn’t bode well. But, I will eagerly anticipate the day when I can safely pop into my nearest charity shop and spend all of my money on new (old?) books. I am even looking forward to the inevitable small talk, the overstocked shelves and saying ‘excuse me’ every 5 seconds.
Do you like charity shopping? If you have social anxiety, is there anything you can think of that has helped? And, my DMs are always open.