This Is What Social Anxiety Disorder Feels Like (To Me)

Are you wondering whether what you’re experiencing could be social anxiety, or just curious about what the disorder feels like on the inside?

I’m not a mental health professional, so I’m going to come at this by sharing what it feels like from my perspective as someone with social anxiety. The list is not exhaustive (though the symptoms themselves are exhausting).

The signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder can be broken down into three groups:

  1. Physical what’s going on in your body
  2. Cognitive what’s going on in your mind
  3. Behavioural how you act (or don’t), what you do (or don’t)

The categories all work together and feed into one another. Let’s start with what goes on in the body.

Common physical signs (What your body does)

In anxiety-triggering situations, I often…

  1. blush (hard to hide as a ginger — during very stressful public speaking situations I often get red splotches all down my neck and across my chest too… which is a big reason why I avoid them most of the time) 
  2. sweat (a bit)
  3. feel my heart beat faster
  4. shake/tremble (I find this one pretty embarrassing — sometimes I can’t even smile without my lips getting all weird-twitchy)
  5. feel queasy/crampy (I spent most of my teenage years and early 20s thinking I had some kind of undiagnosed allergy or digestive illness)
  6. get lightheaded (and generally just feel very “out of it” or spaced out from reality)

Common cognitive signs (what you think)

The cognitive piece is what I sometimes call my brain bully. It is private torture but every bit as potent as the physical symptoms above. It’s gotten a LOT better through therapy, but at its worst, it looked something like this:

  1. They are going to think I’m [insert negative quality] and that I shouldn’t [do whatever or be however]. (I once told a counsellor that the title of my autobiography could be “The Lifelong Quest for Approval.”)
  2. I’m going to look like a complete idiot who is trying too hard and it’s going to be so embarrassing.
  3. I want them to like me… but I’ll probably just come off as [snobby/stupid/flakey/etc.].
  4. What if I’m overdressed? What if I’m underdressed? What if I was just invited as pity invite/courtesy invite? How will I know when it’s time to leave? What if they never leave my house and I need to go to bed but I can’t tell them that so we just sit there ALL NIGHT stuck in some sort of awkward social filibuster and then I DIE and THEY DIE and IT’S ALL MY FAULT and THE PAPERS ALL WRITE ABOUT WHAT A TERRIBLE, INCONSIDERATE HOST I WAS AND HOW IT’S AMAZING I HAD MADE IT THIS FAR WITHOUT KILLING ANYONE WITH MY SOCIALLY INCOMPETENT FOOLERY?!

….. that anxiety thought-spiral is an example of catastrophic thinking and definitely not likely to actually happen like probably not like almost certainly not or at least not most of it.


Common behavioural signs (What you do)

So we talked about the body and the brain pieces of the social anxiety trifecta. The last one is how you actually behave. Here are a few ways social anxiety influences my behaviour (during a bad anxiety flare-up):

  1. I am tempted to avoid many social situations. Like, I chose a job that lets me skulk in my basement office and communicate with people only via email. And also if you ask me to talk on the phone MY INSIDES WILL LITERALLY yes literally in the literal sense EVAPORATE INTO A PUFF OF TOXIC ANXIETY POISON AND THERE WILL ONLY BE A DRIED-OUT HUSK LEFT TO ANSWER YOUR CALL.
  2. When I am not ensconced in my fortress of hermitude and must interface with other humans, I tend to swing to the other extreme and be SUPER HAPPY AND PERKY AND CHIPPER.
  3. I apologize a lot. Like, even for a Canadian. 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).

If this sounds like you

You aren’t alone. You aren’t crazy (I mean, not more than me and I’m totally functional most of the time and more importantly I’ve made huge progress and so can you). It can get better.

There are people who can help. There’s medication if that’s something you’re open to.

You don’t have to display every sign and symptom in a description of social anxiety in order to “justify” getting support. (I didn’t experience every single piece of the description when I was diagnosed with very severe social anxiety a couple of years ago.) (I’m hoping I would fall into the “moderate” range now.)

If you think this sounds like you, then you’re probably right. At the very least, it’s a big enough red flag that there’s something worth looking into going on.

Reach out for help in whatever way you can. There’s too much at stake to just keep trying to soldier on alone. Believe me.

Good places for info:

You got this.

Have you experienced any of the signs and symptoms above?

Let me know in the comments!

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