The topic of anxiety has come up in regular conversations lately. Not just regular anxiety, which I have, but social anxiety (I also have this).
What people tend to think social anxiety is:
- Being shy
- Unwillingness to be social
- Not liking people
- An excuse to get out of doing something
All of the above might appear to fall into the category of social anxiety but truthfully those are the things that someone without social anxiety just assumes about say…me. I think people assume these things because they truthfully don’t understand the concept of social anxiety. Mental disabilities are just now coming to light for a lot of people. You tend to only understand something based on what society tells you to understand about it. But if you earnestly do research on the issue you will find that social anxiety is something much deeper than “being shy”.
What social anxiety actually is:
- The fear of being judged negatively
- Feeling of inadequacy
- Overwhelming emotional distress
- Inability to function in a social situation
- Heart palpitations
- Blacking out or severe blurred vision in social situations
My number one symptom of social anxiety is the first bullet point above. I did not recognize that I had social anxiety until well into my adult years when I looked back at my school years and it clicked that the reason I had “those” feelings was because of social anxiety.
Here are some of my personal scenarios:
- In elementary school we would take turns reading aloud. I would absolutely go into panic mode when this part of class happened. My heart would race, my stomach would churn, and I mean extreme pain, my palms would sweat, my head would pound, and my vision would blur. I was terrified that the other students would judge me based on my ability to read (I was a fine reader), the speed of my reading, what if I didn’t know how to pronounce a word? What if I read the wrong sentence or paragraph. And the truth is that when kids are reading aloud, no one is really listening. So, why was I so terrified?
- Asking for help from the teacher. This was a big one from me and it hindered me so much and it lasted all the way into college. I thought that if I raised my hand, went up to the desk, and admitted that I didn’t understand the assignment that my classmates would think that I was stupid. This paralyzing fear hurt me more than it helped me because I failed to learn certain subjects which caused me to be held back in classes like math and I was forced to be tutored after school and in the summer. Even at the desk jobs that I held as an adult-if I didn’t know how to do a task I would google it instead of asking for help.
- Attending camp, youth events, small groups, bible studies, etc. are also things that petrified me. The fear of being called on, saying actual words out loud, being forced to mingle, participate in an activity in front of a group-these things happen-it’s part of life. Again, this is the fear of being judged in front of a group of people. Being disliked based on what you say. If I saw people whispering to each other I automatically (and irrationally) assumed it was about me. I still struggle with joining small groups.
The three scenarios above are all true, they are all about me and they are the reality of social anxiety. What bothers me the most is when people tell me to face my fear head on by joining in, by doing, putting myself in those situations that make me “uncomfortable”. Saying phrases like that does not help my social anxiety. Just like telling someone to snap out of their depression just doesn’t work.
Here’s what will probably work (for me):
- Being supportive- “I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I don’t personally understand but I’m willing to try.”
- Offer help-“I will go with you to this event and if you feel overwhelmed just let me know and we can leave.”
- Don’t be forceful. Volunteering me to do something, signing me up for something, insisting that I go to an event are not helpful. I will sink into my shell and probably try to shut you out. Not because I want to but out of the fear that it will happen again.
Because of my anxiety it takes me a little bit longer to get warmed up to new relationships, new ideas, and new activities. I like to sit back, observe, get to know my surroundings before I jump full force into something. I like to try new things but it has to be my idea. I like to make new friends but I’m hesitant to open up until I get to know them better. One on one situations work best for this.
Through the course of counseling I have been able to manage my anxiety and social anxiety pretty well. My counselor has given me activities to do, apps to try, and breathing techniques that have honestly helped me cope in most situations. Am I cured? No, I will always have this and in a way I am okay with it. It is a part of me. But I do feel like I need to do my part and help educate the general public about the reality of social anxiety and shut down the false facts that people assume about social anxiety. I do my best to pass my anxious burdens to God. It’s not easy. He knows my needs and I give them to Him regularly. In the midst of a panic attack I can whisper the name of Jesus and feel a calm surrender.
Those who suffer from anxiety disorders aren’t weird, anti-social, nut jobs. We are trying to simply cope with all the world gives us in the best way that we know how. Sometimes coping is leaving an event early, staying home when everyone is going out because you’ve been overwhelmed past your limit for the week, spending a little extra one on one time with your bestie or significant other and no one else.
Even though you may not understand social anxiety try to offer those who do have it some grace and we will try to do the same for you.
If you are interested in learning more about social anxiety I like this Social Anxiety page.