“Everyone feels anxious sometimes.”
This is something I’ve heard a lot since opening up about having social anxiety. In most cases, the comment is well-meant, with the goal of reassuring me that I’m not “crazy,” because after all everyone feels anxious now and then.
And it’s true. Everyone does worry, feel anxious, get nervous, stress out… now and then. Public speaking is a big trigger for a lot of people. Meeting new people. Going on a date. Writing a big exam. Lots of other scenarios. It’s totally normal to feel some level of distress in these situations.
The problem with “diagnosable” social anxiety is that the distress is persistent—even constant in some cases. It doesn’t just flare up now and then in a manageable way—it disrupts the person’s life. It goes beyond “I’m a little shy.” It can lead to feeling depressed (this applies to me), using alcohol or drugs to ease the stress in social situations (also me—the alcohol but not the drugs), and avoiding opportunities or social occasions (I am writing this post from my office in our basement).
I thought it might be useful to share these thoughts today in case anyone reading this is in the stage of wondering if they are “just shy” or may actually benefit from some form of treatment (counselling, medication, or other). I spent about two decades in that “I’m just shy… okay, now I feel less shy but I’m still freaking out inside… what’s wrong with me?” limbo.
Social anxiety is actually a combination of three categories of signs: physical, cognitive, and behavioural. The list below comes from this article and the comments in italics are my own experience.
blushing: obviously applies to me
sweating: not so much
rapid breathing: yep
increased heart rate: yep
shaking: yep, super embarrassing
clammy hands: not so much
upset stomach: lord yes – I spent most of my teenage years and early 20s thinking I had some kind of food sensitivity or undiagnosed illness
dry mouth: sometimes I can hardly swallow
false belief that you will be judged negatively: I have always done this, and I never believe that it is “false” (I’m starting to change that)
false belief that others will not approve of you: I once told a counsellor that the title of my autobiography could be “The Lifelong Quest for Approval”
fear of embarrassment in front of others: Is there any other way to feel in front of others?
wanting to make a good impression, but doubting your ability to do so: Activating OVERLY PERKY AND CHIPPER MODE in 3, 2, 1…
worrying about events ahead of time: This is my primary hobby in life
avoidance of uncomfortable situations (performance or interaction with others): See above re. basement office and also if you ask me to talk on the phone MY INSIDES WILL LITERALLY YES LITERALLY IN THE LITERAL SENSE EVAPORATE INTO A CLOUD OF TOXIC ANXIETY POISON AND THERE WILL BE ONLY A DRIED-OUT SADIE-HUSK LEFT TO ANSWER YOUR CALL
passive, withdrawn: I fluctuate between this and being AGGRESSIVELY FRIENDLY and people-pleasey
use of alcohol or substances to manage situations: Alcohol, and this scares me, and is one of the big reasons I am so committed to finding other coping mechanisms
asking for reassurance: I go one step further—I’m too worried about inconveniencing people to ask for reassurance (but I’m trying to dial it back to being able to ask for reassurance when I need it)
apologizing excessively: If I could no longer apologize I’m not sure what I’d have left to say (I’m kidding… but not as kidding as you would hope for a functional adult)
avoiding eye contact: I feel okay making eye contact when the other person is speaking, but I can’t if I’m the one talking
wearing makeup to cover blushing: THERE’S MAKEUP FOR THAT?!?! I always thought my only option would be a turtleneck if I had to speak in public. Which I would never do anyway. What, I don’t own a turtleneck.
I’m trying this thing where I don’t agonize for days over a post I’ve written. So many times in the past years, I’ve wanted to share my experience and writing online, but I would get swept up in this tornado of perfectionism and find every reason not to do it. So I’m going to go to the other extreme and recklessly hit Publish even if it’s not Objectively Perfect. (Rational Me knows this is an unachievable benchmark anyway, but Rational Me isn’t always the one in charge around here.)
I will end on this note: Please, if this post resonates with you in any way, do not feel ashamed. You aren’t alone. There are people who can help. There’s medication if that’s something you’re open to. There’s hope. Yes, I’m writing to you from the trenches. No, I’m not a mental health expert. I’m still on my journey of trying to learn how to go from “cripplingly anxious” to “functionally shy.” I hope sharing my experience will help others. Please don’t stop yourself from reaching out for help in whatever way you can. There’s too much at stake to just keep trying to soldier on alone. Trust me.