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Living with social anxiety

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

Do you recall how you felt when you were supposed to present at that big business meeting? Have you ever felt uncomfortable eating in a cafe surrounded by people who could be looking at you? Remember how you desperately wanted to come up with excuses when your friends encouraged you to apply for the local singing competition? Perhaps you can think back to how your heart leaped out of your chest when your lecturer asked you to introduce yourself in university.

While some of you may be wondering why these would be concerns in the first place, for some others this is a lived experience on the daily. Hence, the question: Why can’t you be more normal? This question, when asked from someone with lived experience, can add insult to injury. The discomfort and nervousness you experience in social situations can be given a name – social anxiety. The degree to which it impacts a person and how much distress it brings about determines whether it can be termed “social anxiety disorder” (as specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Social anxiety disorder happens to be one of the most common anxiety disorders. For some, talking to people and performing in front of large crowds come with relative ease, whereas for the person living with social anxiety, the anxiety experienced in social situations can interfere with a person’s daily life significantly.

Social anxiety may be experienced in two broad categories of situations: Performance situations and interpersonal interactions.

Performance situations involve instances where people may experience being observed, such as:

  • Performing in public
  • Public speaking
  • Participating and having to ask or answer questions in a class or a meeting
  • Eating in front of others

Interpersonal situations involve those instances when people are interacting with others, such as:

  • Going to a social event
  • Asking someone out, and dating
  • Meeting new people
  • Interacting during a job interview
  • Expressing opinions
  • Talking on the phone
  • Group work

Generally, these situations are dreaded due to a tremendous fear of being judged or criticised by others, being embarrassed or humiliated, being the centre of attention, and accidentally offending someone.

When a person appears or expresses comfort in one social situation, as described above, but may not necessarily feel comfortable in another, it is often assumed that they must be faking it, i.e. they are not experiencing social anxiety at all. However, this scenario too is highly likely where one person may feel comfortable in one set of social situations such as interacting with colleagues at work and still experience anxiety and avoid public speaking. Hence, care ought to be taken when addressing these experiences so as to not diminish a lived experience.

Let’s explore what living with social anxiety looks like.

Physically, you may experience:

  • A racing heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle tension

As for your thoughts and feelings, you may have a diverse set of fears and worries pertaining to these situations, and a lot of “what-ifs” running through your mind. This can make you:

  • Worry for days or weeks before an event
  • Worry that others may notice that you are stressed or nervous
  • Avoid social situations altogether
  • Neglect school or work obligations
  • Try to remain in the background as opposed to being recognised for your accomplishments, skills, or talents

A few examples of the thoughts that may stem owing to social anxiety include: “I’m going to say something stupid”, “others will think I’m weird”, “others will think I’m stupid”, “no one will talk to me”, and “they will laugh at me”.

Usually, when something brings us a lot of stress, we strive to avoid it. Similarly, when these social situations bring up anxiety, the knee-jerk reaction is to avoid it by avoiding the situations it arises in. If avoiding a situation altogether is difficult, they may escape it. For example, if there’s no way that you could not attend a party, you may go there but leave early or engage in some behaviour that prevents the perceived evaluations or embarrassment such as by not talking to others out of fear of saying something stupid.

It is only normal to experience feeling anxious in situations at times. However, the distress it brings can cross a threshold and start interfering with daily life, and the way a person copes with the feelings of anxiety can exacerbate the problem. For example, a person may avoid job interviews, refuse job promotions, struggle with forming and sustaining relationships, may find it difficult to be assertive, and may cope with the anxiety by consuming alcohol or drugs.

Living with social anxiety is not an easy task. However, with adequate love and support, you are able to live, even thrive, with social anxiety. Family and friends can be great sources of support, helping you manage the signs of social anxiety while offering empathy and gentle challenges to combat some negative thoughts you may have about yourself. Seeking therapy with a mental health professional can also be highly beneficial as there are different modes of therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy that have been found to be highly effective in helping people cope with social anxiety.

As a society, it is important that we continue to broaden our understanding of mental health concerns such as social anxiety, so that we may at least rethink our choice of words when asking “why can’t you be normal?”.

Photos Verywellmind, Stayprepared, YouTube