There's nothing like the sensation of your heartbeat quickening, your stomach dropping to your ankles and a tingling sensation that, alas, is not your Spider-Sense. Is it fear? Is it loathing? No, it's just me trying to go to a comics convention.
For whatever reason, my love of a one-stop shop for celebrating pop culture franchises I adore is countered by the severe social anxiety and fear of crowds that have plagued me most of my life. Same thing happens at theme parks. Even concerts have proven difficult.
The logical thing would be to just avoid those situations. Don't go into crowded places and the crowds can't make it feel like everything is caving in on you, right? But then I'd just end up never going anywhere, which, while less expensive, isn't much fun either.
Little by little, I've found ways to help manage that pesky impulse to bolt from people-filled enclosed spaces. And since there's a statistical possibility someone else out there might be missing out of convention-going for the same reason, I figured I'd share what I've learned as Comic-Con 2019 kicks off this week.
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Note that I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. Just sharing what works for me in hopes that it might scale for some of you out there.
After staying away from events for a number of years, I wanted to get back into things, but the idea of going to something as massive as San Diego Comic Con was a little too daunting. So I went to (relatively) smaller cons, like Silicon Valley Comic Con. SVCC isn't as big as SDCC -- Steve Wozniak only started it in 2016 -- but there were lots of people crammed into the San Jose Convention Center last time I went. Still, there was enough space and enough organization (and sweet, sweet air conditioning) that I didn't get very near panic mode.
Smaller conventions still have plenty to offer, and you can build (or rebuild) your tolerance for groups of people. As a bonus, they tend to be significantly less expensive to get in, which gives you a bigger margin to spend on all that stuff you love but don't necessarily have room for.
I live in California's Central Valley, and in the past few years there've been a lot more small cons popping up even out near me, but if that's not happening where you live, it's still worth keeping an eye out, because that could change soon.
Wide-open spaces, y'all
You're not apt to find large swaths of empty floor space on the show floor of almost any convention. But you can get at least a little more breathing room in hallways near the panel discussions that are scheduled. There's also outside, weather (and in-and-out privileges) permitting. If you're getting a little anxious bumping elbows with folks on the floor, take a break, get some air. It's like letting your health bar regenerate.
Your friend, the wall
In 2016, I went to SDCC for the first time since 2002, a year so distant you could actually buy tickets at the door the day you planned to attend. Your average attendance at SDCC is about a billion people, to my eyes, or well over 100,000 people, if you believe SDCC's About page.
Carving off a bit of wall gave me a little relief from plowing through all the crowds. It gave me at least one direction I knew people wouldn't be coming from, and it's also a good place to do some people watching.
Another thing that helped, oddly: waiting in line. Sure, you're with a bunch of people, but there's order to it (ideally, anyway; some of those lines get crazy-long and circuitous), and in a way, the people in front of you and behind you act as buffers from other people around you. Plus, you can chat while you're waiting if you're so inclined.
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Exploit the tall
Another mini tip, especially if you're on the shorter side. If you spot a tall person or two going your way, you can draft behind them as they part the crowd. Drafting: it's not just for cars!
Rise and fall
Don't get discouraged if you have setbacks in your progress, or if you're not making progress as quickly as you'd like. I mean, you are basically trying to fight your own brain. Just in the last few years, I've gotten better about not immediately bolting out the door once I see people spilling from every corridor and staircase. But I still have a hard time when it comes to meeting actors or artists in attendance. Apparently, because the anxiety and crowd fear wasn't enough, I'm also horribly shy.
It's easier if I've got friends with me. If someone starts the conversation, I can join in rather than just stumbling to think of something to say. I figure this is just another thing to work on, little by little.
Got any tips that have helped you manage going to conventions? Feel free to share in the comments!
Originally published April 24, 2017.
Update, July 17, 2019: Adds information on San Diego Comic-Con 2019.