Walking while flipping out
May 22, 2015 7:28 AM   Subscribe

I have recurring episodes of social anxiety that are making it difficult for me to move around effectively, let alone make plans and follow through with them. Passing people on the sidewalk I feel anxious that I will be making them uncomfortable if I walk too close behind, or pass them too fast, or look at them or avoid looking at them... I realize this makes me show anxious body language which in turn makes others genuinely uncomfortable, starting a vicious cycle.

I am looking for two things:
1) Ways of coping with and limiting this sensation. So far I have found that thinking of this anxiety as not something I'm "recieving" but something I'm "sending out" is helpful; I can try to "tune down" my reponse rather than trying to figure out exactly what signals I'm getting and both myself and the people around me seem calmer (not sure if that is a helpful way of expressing what I mean).

2) Guidelines for moving-around-on-sidewalks normal body language. Like, should I be speeding up to pass people vs slowing down to not catch up creepily when someone is in front of me going slower (I walk fairly quickly). Or is acting on that kind of thinking just going to contribute to anxious tendencies?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You are allowed to over take someone that is moving more slowly than you, usually you just maintain speed and maintaining an arms length go around them. (a foot or so is fine if pavement is super crowded). As someone that has trouble with crowds I find sunglasses effective at helping me remain calmer, as I feel safer if I can't make eye contact and people don't know I'm avoiding their gaze with sunnies on.

I have also found it helpful to think of the anxiety as something that is passing through me or washing over me like bobbing over a wave on the ocean, it starts to lift you up as it approaches, if you fight it is when things go wrong, it's better if you just let it wash past you by floating over it if you can or if it's too strong diving under it, feeling the weight of it as it passes as something external effecting you but not of you, then rising up again unharmed.
posted by wwax at 7:45 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

First off, really passing is not going to bother most for more than a moment if that much. But it's situational, if it's a couple old folks on a narrow section I'll slow down until there's a wider spot. Estimate a few inches to avoid bumping/brushing.

Busy urban area with agile younger folks passing face to face, turn slightly to avoid but don't bother to slow.


There's the situation when approaching someone distracted a half block away, they shift to pass the same direction you shift, you both change shifting directions, then again, and finally become aware and synchronize to miss and both smile and pass.

If really rushing and the folks you're passing seem distracted a quiet "on the left" is appropriate.

Being ready with a quiet " 'scuse me" as you pass is not inappropriate.

A smile goes a long way.

If you're carrying something heavy a louder "Behind You" is pretty effective.

I have crossed the street or changed routes on a dark night to avoid seeming to be following someone, but that's unusual.

Really, try not to overthink it, it's a non-issue for most folks, really a not-even-aware non-issue. Even when you feel you're seriously impacting on someone's personal space the may not even be aware anyone is around.
posted by sammyo at 7:58 AM on May 22, 2015

1. Know that nobody else is thinking about you unless you are in their personal space, which I tend to think of as more-or-less close enough that you could touch them with your hand if you leaned into it, or if you are spending a while just barely outside of that space, which may make people think you are following them or are going to start something untoward. If the street is crowded, the personal space radius decreases somewhat, but do your best never to actually bump or touch anybody if you can help it.

2. Moderate your speed so that you spend as little time as possible in or near any person's personal space. This can mean going wide around other people when you are only walking slightly faster than they are, and it can mean putting on a little extra speed to pass them quickly if you can't go wide. If you can't do either of these things, slow way down and give plenty of room in front of them.

And don't overthink it. Even if you happen, through neglect or accident, to walk too close to someone, and as a result they start to become actually and specifically afraid of you, that is still just a feeling that they can handle. It's not great, but once you pass them and they go on about their day, in all likelihood they won't think twice about you again, and neither should you.
posted by gauche at 8:00 AM on May 22, 2015

My dear fellow right-pacer, I'm charmed that it's possible to think about this situation in this way. I'm frequently in it, myself, but it would never occur to me to worry about how my rightwalking might be affecting wrongwalkers. I think I should take a page from your book and you should take one from mine, mine reading something like this: slow, blobbish impediments to human progress like the ones you describe aren't looking at you or noticing you, and if they are, it's only momentarily and it isn't hurting them significantly enough that you should even think about it, much less worry about it. You have a right to be in the world and to traverse the sidewalks of the world. You aren't a scary monster, you're just a person on a sidewalk moving at a reasonable pace. If the human sloths among us are freaked out by people moving at the speed of life, that's sad for them but it isn't our problem. Walk at your most comfortable pace and avoid impediments. Stop worrying about the humanity of some of the impediments you encounter and simply physically move around all of them in the most expedient way possible. Person, tree, empty Segway rolling along--move around it. Godspeed.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:04 AM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Those thoughts sound like the intrusive thoughts that people experience as part of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. You might consider therapy with someone who specializes in OCD and more specifically exposure and response prevention as a way to address this.
posted by goggie at 8:15 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Ways of coping with and limiting this sensation.

I am like this a little. When my anxiety is higher I have a really hard time crossing the street. It makes me nutty. What helps me is managing my anxiety as a stress/health concern (which it is) buy doing all the stuff: eating better, limiting caffeine, limiting stressors, exercising, mindfulness (and therapy/meds if that's your thing). Please be aware that for most people there are things that really work to tamp down the anxiety.

But what has also helped, when I'm out and about and basically may be stuck in a situation, is just trying to be

- calm
- predictable
- friendly

Try to keep a few feet of a buffer before and after you if you can (that is, if someone is creeping up on you it's fine to step aside and let them pass, it's also okay to speed up to pass someone with a quick "excuse me"). Obviously this doesn't work on a city sidewalk and this is where predictability comes in. Try to walk at a steady pace, telegraph your movements to other people who may also just be trying to get from point A to point B. Do not dart. Look in advance of where you are going. Try to find an opening and don't just force one. But at some level other people on sidewalks are grownups and some may be anxious and some may be clueless and you can make yourself nuts just trying to please all of them.

Assuming that you're responsible for other people's walking happiness is a cognitive distortion and worth trying to shake off (or, again, therapy/meds if you can't shake it off and it's upsetting you). Trying to be a leaf in the river and intuiting the overall flow of the traffic and not the individual rocks and sticks and fish that are the other people is where you want to be aiming.
posted by jessamyn at 8:18 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Bear in mind that when women talk about being scared if someone walks up behind them they mostly mean in deserted areas where crime is more likely to happen because of the lack of witnesses. Comments about being scared when overtaken don't (in my mind) actually apply to busy sidewalks. Yes, someone who is zoned out listening to tunes might perhaps be startled, but that's on them and they are unlikely to fear for their life. (The backdrop of dark, lonely streets isn't always explicitly stated when online discussions about crossing the street to avoid intimidating people are abstractly hashed out.)
posted by puddledork at 8:26 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

People are hugely self-absorbed. Most are completely oblivious about others' personal space, and have no problem at all with taking up the whole sidewalk by walking in groups of three (or even four or five); or simply stopping in front of doors, at intersections, at the bottom of escalators, or just whenever it occurs to them; or zig-zagging in slow motion because they're window shopping or deciding what to eat or are just confused about what to do with themselves. If you're walking slowly for whatever reason, others will steamroll past without a care, or even tailgate you to push you forward. People basically do not give a crap about anyone but themselves when they're locomoting in public.

So just go where you're going however you want to. I usually walk fairly fast, and when I see a phalanx of window-shoppers, or a hand-holding zig-zaggy couple, I just walk tight to the left or right and weave around them. I can leave a margin of a mere 3" and they still don't react in a way that would indicate they've noticed (they are still doing conversational waving-hands and just not at all responding).

If a stranger even raises their eyes to see you, as far as they're concerned, you only exist for a second. If that. In the worst case scenario that they think you're rude, which you can't know or control, odds are you'll never see them again. It doesn't matter what they think.

Oh for eye gaze - just above people's heads or blankly past them.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:28 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thought is to examine your anxiety, the basic.emotion as it comes up, notice your breath, and push your rising tension over just a bit, to joy. You might have an other biochemical relationship to exercise endorphins. If you look back a little to junior high something about exercise, growing up, and fitting into your new form, might have left you with a mild unease, that is all. Often we are not allowed to own our bodies or adult gait. See if, as you set off to walk, you find a basic lightness and joy you just haven't had the time or peace of mind to enjoy, yet

The above considerations about the use of sidewalks and personal space are great. You have the right to fully exist in public places.

You can assess for hostile appearing body language, often it is more a self assessment than hostility on the other's part. Some people walk the world like warriors, but it doesn't mean they are at war. Worrying constantly has the biochemical effect of having something awful happen, even if it didn't. Walking is our natural, peaceful exercise form, our basic motion, tie it to pleasure if you can.
posted by Oyéah at 8:51 AM on May 22, 2015

(That's in a city, though. If you're in a smaller, less densely populated place, it's different, obviously. I've been to little towns where everyone walks slowly and people smile and nod or even say hello. If that's the culture, it's good to respond in kind and be polite in the ways others have described. The strangest situation for me is in suburbs where almost no one is not in a car or inside, so you feel conspicuous walking at all, and the few randoms who are out really aren't up for or used to interaction, and there aren't enough people to create visual white noise. The most awkward thing there is if it's just you and some people are coming upon you, in a long facedown. Then, just take a deep breath as you pass and either do a quick smile-and-look-away, or keep looking forward.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:53 AM on May 22, 2015

Look into treatment for anxiety.

Keep in mind that no one is paying as much attention to you as you are. I go for walks almost every day after work, in a busy urban neighborhood where sidewalks are populated with phone-reading commuters, women with laundry baskets and toddlers, kids on skateboards, old men having a catch-up in the middle of the sidewalk, homeless people with shopping carts full of stuff, etc., and unless you are passed out in the middle of the sidewalk, or actively grabbing at people, you will not be given more attention than is needed to get out of your way (and maybe not even that).

Your mere presence is not causing problems, but your thinking about it is, for you.
posted by rtha at 9:25 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

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