Having lived with social anxiety disorder for over 18 years now, and having researched the personal experiences of others battling with this disorder, all votes seem to be unanimous – social anxiety sucks!
Never experienced social anxiety? Consider yourself lucky. According to the Social Anxiety Institute this seemingly irrational but very real disorder is among the third largest mental psychological disorders in the country, after depression and alcoholism.
Is it just me or is that information – Um, WOW! If it’s such a common problem then why aren’t we talking about it?
Personally, having lived with severe social anxiety since high school, I’ve rarely had the desire to share my dilemma with friends, family, and definitely not strangers.
Going solo and not reaching out for help is very common among those who suffer from social anxiety. We hide our fears because we want to be as inconspicuous as possible. Incognito is the goal; to get through a social situation discretely or avoid the situation entirely. We want to fit in and be unnoticed, which sadly, breeds more fear and more anxiety.
This is probably a huge reason why those who experience social anxiety or a panic attack for the first time have no idea what’s happening, because those of us who experience them on a regular basis rarely (if ever) talk about it.
People with social anxiety are often misunderstood and labeled as shy, inhibited, meek, timid, flakey or disinterested but those descriptions are rarely true. The truth is we CRAVE to be social, but everything about a social situation just feels wrong. The events at hand do not match the corresponding thoughts, emotions, and chemical reactions pumping through our bodies at any given moment.
For anyone who has never experienced social anxiety I would imagine the simple solution would be to just, “face your fears” and “get over it.”
Oh, if only it were that simple!
Living with social anxiety means that you face your biggest fears EVERY SINGLE DAY. Every social situation is a David & Goliath moment and walking away alive means you’ve won a small battle, but never the war.
Dramatic much? Yes. Absolutely! It really does feel that intense.
For me, this is the best way I can describe what it’s like to live with social anxiety:
THOUGHTS – Your thoughts are in overdrive. When anxiety sets in so does your imagination. You begin to overthink EVERYTHING, which makes it almost impossible to actively listen or be present with the person or situation in front of you. All you can think about is every little detail (past, present, future) and ultimately how to change or get out of the current situation.
EMOTIONS – Someone with social anxiety generally experiences intense feelings of fear and insecurities due to situational triggers. This emotionally charged moment is often accompanied with physical symptoms (loss of breath, shaking, muscle twitches, sweating, dry mouth, weakness, dizziness, feeling faint, and racing heartbeat). In the moment those feelings can feel less like a symptom and more like a validation that you are in a very real and dangerous situation. The emotional overload can also make you feel detached from your current situation and at the peak of a panic attack the dominating emotion becomes the very real and primal need for survival.
CHEMICAL REACTIONS – Physically, you have just went into fight-or-flight mode. Your adrenaline is pumping, your senses are heightened, and your body begins to prepare mentally and physically to kick a**! This it what it feels like during a panic attack. You have so much adrenaline pumping through your veins you could probably lift up a car with one hand or K.O. a bear if one jumped out in front of you. The problem is that the chemical reactions happening in your body do not match the current situation. It’s not considered socially acceptable to start attacking people or run around the block to release the build up of energy being created in your body. You – Just – Have – To – Sit – There.
There are times when my social anxiety, even today, seems unbearable and can quickly lead into depressive down-spirals and long bouts of living like a hermit.
However, more often than not, my social anxiety is easily manageable as long as I keep my life active and stay at least semi-social within various public situations. Also, talking about my social anxiety with close friends or family has helped tremendously. When experiencing social anxiety it’s easy to feel like you are in it alone, but you are never alone!
With that being said, I thought this would be a great topic to write/talk about. If you have ever experienced social anxiety, if you know of someone who suffers from social anxiety, or even if you have never experienced social anxiety (but might possibly in the future) here are 10 things you should know to better prepare yourself for the battle you may be facing tomorrow:
1. You’re Not Alone
1 in every 4 people experience social anxiety and most of those people don’t even know it.
2. Social Anxiety Is Totally Treatable
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) or rather the “illness of lost opportunities” is not only manageable, it’s 100% treatable and often times without medication. So, don’t keep missing those opportunities in front of you. Reach out and learn more about social anxiety disorder. There is a life waiting for you free from feelings of unnecessary stress and panic.
3. It May Feel Like It, But You’re Not Dying!
When dealing with social anxiety, or having a panic attack for the first time, the experience can be so intense that people often describe it as, “I felt like I was dying” or “I thought I was going crazy.” The fears and triggers are not rational (FEAR: False. Evidence. Appearing. Real.), but the knowing of this does not make the situation feel any less real or less dangerous. However “the knowing” of what to expect when anxiety shows can help to keep fears and panic from escalating by serving as a reminder in the moment; you’ve felt like this before, you know what triggers are causing those feelings, and from past experience everything is and will be ok.
4. It’s Not Personal. My Anxiety Has Nothing To Do With You
Sometimes people with social anxiety may seem stuck-up. I’ve been called that more than I care to admit, but the truth is, in those moments of anxiety or a panic attack our behavior has nothing to do with anyone around us. In those moments every ounce of energy is going into survival mode and getting out of the current situation. It’s the environment that makes the situation stressful, not anything you (as an outsider) did or didn’t do.
5. This Moment Isn’t Really Me
While I may be an introvert by nature, I’m very outgoing at heart. I love to start conversations with random people, get to know what interests them, and make new acquaintances. But, when dealing with social anxiety I’m definitely not the best version of myself. In the moment, for someone who struggles with social anxiety, it can feel like you are trapped in your own skin. It is a very scary, helpless, and frustrating experience. Those moments can not only be really embarrassing but also discouraging when we are trying to find the courage to tackle other future social situations. Please be extra kind. You never really know what someone else is going through.
6. Diet & Exercise Do Wonders For Anxiety
Having a healthier diet with minimal caffeine, sugar, and processed food has done wonders for me. I’ve also discovered that when I have a regular exercise routine, I often times find myself calm and confident in situations where I would normally be anxious or nervous.
7. Believe It Or Not, Posture Helps
I recently ran across this Ted Talks video by Social Psychologist, Amy Cuddy. In it she talks about how our body language shapes who we are. After watching this I began to pay more and more attention to my body. The posture of my body when I’m insecure is very different from the posture of my body when I’m feeling confident. I’ve also noticed that my posture can serve as a trigger for either a panic attack or a state of confidence. If you haven’t watched the video yet, check it out. I just know you’ll love it!
8. Breathe, Just Breathe
I heard this once in a yoga class, “Your only job, the only thing you have to do right now is breathe.” It may sound simple but focusing on your breath can greatly help to reboot and calm your body in times of stress. If you are not familiar with breathing techniques then here are “6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less.” You are in control, remember that!
9. Exposure, Awareness, And Building Yourself Up
When I’m going through a really stressful time and my social anxiety is trying to dominate my schedule, in order to get back on track, I start by setting myself up for small wins; I’ll go inside the gas station instead of paying at the pump, I’ll sit for an hour in a coffee shop to do my writing, take a walk in the park or at a shopping center where there are lots of people, have drinks or brunch with a girlfriend and then dinner with a group. By the time I get to my toughest goal, I’ve already experienced several wins and now have added confidence that I can take with me into more stressful social situations.
10. A Conversation Can Make All The Difference
If you are battling with social anxiety, find a close friend or relative you can confide in and share what you are going through. Sometimes just having the conversation and the knowing that you are not alone can make all the difference in the world!
Most importantly remember; you are not alone and that social anxiety is totally figureoutable, treatable, and overcomeable. You got this!