by Caroline Platzman
“Jack,” my third grade teacher called out.
“Stephanie,” she continued, and I felt my heart race and my palms starting to sweat.
“Here!” exclaimed Stephanie.
I could barely focus on anything but the impending doom of hearing my name eventually come out of her mouth too.
“Caroline…” The moment was finally here. Okay, Caroline. Time to shine.
“Here.” Mission accomplished – I was practically shaking. The second I was done saying that one measly word, I could feel the weight of the world lift off my shoulders. Pure and immense relief.
It took me years to figure out that this wasn’t necessarily normal. The other kids I went to school with didn’t seem to get as horrified as I did at the thought of doing simple role calls in class, or presenting a project in front of others, or socializing and making friends with everyone. It took me even longer to realize there were steps I could take to not feel this anxiety anymore, and even longer than that to determine I was not alone in feeling these ways. What I had been dealing with as an adolescent and eventually defeated as an adult is known as social anxiety disorder.
What is social anxiety disorder?
Social anxiety disorder, otherwise known as SAD or social phobia, is a common mental health condition that renders a person irrationally fearful and nervous of and in social situations.
Just because you don’t feel like going out to that party, or you aren’t the biggest fan of public speaking does not mean you have social anxiety. It means getting nervous in everyday situations that others would not think twice about.
Behavioral and emotional symptoms of SAD may include:Fear of being around others
- Fear of being judged by others
- Fear of meeting new people
- Fear of unfamiliar situations
- Fear of attention
- Fear of rejection
- Avoidance of social situations
Physical symptoms of SAD may include:
- Accelerated heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
- Nausea/upset stomach
- Poor physical coordination
- Inability to concentrate on/coordinate your thoughts
Social anxiety is more than mere shyness – it is a debilitating discomfort that weighs on your ability to feel like yourself around others. It’s like living in constant fear of something going wrong, although you’re not even sure of what that something is. But, even the thought of people seeing it, or talking to you about it, or thinking about it is enough to keep from you avoiding situations with people. Learning to manage social phobia is like learning how not to stand in your own way.
Who develops social anxiety?
Social anxiety is common in adolescents and adults and can develop at any point in life, but it typically begins around the age of 13. Risk factors for developing social phobias include life stressors, childhood trauma, existing mental health conditions, and genetics. Research suggests it is equally common among men and women.
When does social anxiety occur?
Not every social situation is triggering for those living with social anxiety. Some situations feel normal to navigate, while others feel stressful. For instance, when a person with SAD is around people or situations they are familiar and comfortable with, they may not show any signs of being socially anxious. But, people with social phobia may become triggered by situations that introduce them to new and unfamiliar things, place them at the center of attention, or judge or reject them in some way.
How does social anxiety make you feel?
The ability to function in daily life can be a daunting task with social anxiety. Fear associated with everyday tasks such as working, going to school, hanging out with friends, shopping, going out to eat, using public restrooms, dating, etc. can severely debilitate someone’s motivation to complete them, which ultimately dismantles their confidence and interferes with their ability to function in everyday life.
If you have social phobias, you may be absolutely horrified at the thought of the teacher calling on you in class, or even picking up a phone call from your best friend. You may feel intimidated by going to the store, where you know other people will be, or by going to the party your friend invited you to, where you won’t really know anyone. The thought of meeting new people and visiting new places is horrifying instead of exciting.
And, going to great lengths to avoid these activities and situations is not unusual in SAD sufferers. When we had to do relay races in my middle school gym class, I would sneak back to the end of the line everytime my teacher’s back was turned so I wouldn’t have to run the race, by myself, in front of everyone. And for whatever reason, the teacher thought it would be cute to have us pass a rubber chicken to one another instead of a regular baton as part of the relay. I would’ve done the same if it were a baton, but the rubber chicken made it even more mortifying. I would have rather taken an F than even think about running and falling with that rubber chicken.
In severe cases, those with social phobia may avoid work, school, and other responsibilities that involve interacting with others. Social anxiety puts hurdles in front of tasks that would otherwise not only be tolerable, but enjoyable or adventurous. You can miss out on some seriously life-changing opportunities if you allow your SAD to control your life.
With social anxiety, you begin to unnecessarily filter and criticize yourself, to a point you feel others won’t welcome or accept you. It can make you feel lonely, judged or even embarrassed in a room full of people that love you and want you around. However, the anxiety interferes with your ability to believe that.
What are the symptoms of social anxiety?
Social anxiety can be difficult to understand when you are not dealing with it yourself. Unfortunately, symptoms can manifest in ways that can make a person appear unfriendly, unreliable or unreasonable. You may avoid seeing friends or hanging out in group settings, or you may cancel plans at the last minute and appear flaky. You may have difficulty with communication, sometimes retreating to no communication at all. It is imperative to understand that people do not intend to isolate others, rather they inadvertently isolate themselves.
Social anxiety looks different on different people – symptoms exist below the surface as well as at face value. It is not always easy to spot, as many people learn to cope and function in daily life. Physical symptoms that accompany social anxiety can include panic attacks, increased heart rate, nausea, sweating, shaking, blushing, tense muscles and dizziness. The symptoms of social anxiety often overlap with the symptoms of generalized anxiety but are more isolated to certain social situations.
The worst part is, those living with social anxiety usually understand that the fear they experience is unwarranted and irrational. I know that it doesn’t make any sense to worry about , but my brain doesn’t care. I worry anyway. This can make treatment a frustrating, albeit not impossible task. Most people with social anxiety spend several years dealing with it before seeking professional help.
Is social anxiety treatable?
Social anxiety requires a medical diagnosis and is ultimately treatable by mental health professionals. Typically, a combination of cognitive therapy and antidepressant medication helps people more effectively cope with social anxiety by building their confidence and improving their ability to interact with others. Understanding the root of the anxiety helps people hone coping skills and better the trajectory of their treatment.
Some people, like myself, successfully learn to manage social anxiety and only struggle with minor symptoms occasionally. Activities that can help manage social anxiety symptoms include practicing meditation, deep-breathing, mindfulness exercises, and journaling. Some people find it helpful to focus their energy on a hobby and set goals for themselves in this context. Some people are finding that CBD or CBD-dominant cannabis strains can be helpful in managing social anxiety disorder.
It is important for those working to overcome social anxiety to maintain their health by maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
And when it comes to treatment, baby steps are better than no steps at all. Practice communicating with others and increasing social interactions slowly – don’t throw yourself into very busy or stimulating situations all at once. Do your best to maintain an open dialogue with your loved ones, despite your fear of judgement. Remain open-minded and willing to become involved, and take pride in the baby steps that you do accomplish. It isn’t cured overnight.
Social anxiety continues to remain a stigmatized and underdetected condition in our society, despite how common it is. If not dealt with, SAD has the potential to deteriorate a person’s quality of life. However, with proper treatment and the mindful support of others, it does not have to.
For more information on social anxiety and other anxiety diagnoses, see:
- 5 Types of Anxiety Diagnoses
- Anxiety vs. Stress (There’s a Difference)
- 11 Symptoms of Anxiety
- 12 Physical Effects of Anxiety
For more information on coping strategies with regards to anxiety, check out:
Chapdelaine, A., Carrier, J.D., Fournier, L., Duhoux, A., & Roberge, P. (2018). Treatment adequacy for social anxiety disorder in primary care patients.
Yielding, Robert (2019). Is cannabis the new solution to social anxiety? National Social Anxiety Center. https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/2019/03/20/is-cannabis-the-new-solution-to-social-anxiety/
WebMD. What is social anxiety disorder? https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/mental-health-social-anxiety-disorder#1
About Caroline Platzman
Caroline Platzman is a Behavioral Health Counselor working with adults diagnosed with schizophrenia. She is passionate about mental health, journalism, nonprofit advocacy, and public relations. Caroline is also a dedicated guitarist and artist in her free time.
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