15 Things Only People With Social Anxiety Would Understand

All day, every day, life is like this. Fear. Apprehension. Avoidance. Pain. Anxiety about what you said. Fear that you said something wrong. Worry about others’ disapproval. Afraid of rejection, of not fitting in. Anxious to enter a conversation, afraid you’ll have nothing to talk about. Hiding what’s wrong with you deep inside, putting up a defensive wall to protect your “secret”. You are undergoing the daily, chronic trouble of living with this mental disorder we call social anxiety disorder.

For us with social anxiety or those of us who have suffered in the past, we tend to live our lives by strange rules and protocols that mere mortals would find hard to fathom.

Very few people understand the agonizing and traumatic depth of social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety makes people go inside themselves and try to “protect” this secret. Most people with social anxiety disorder try to hide it from others, especially from family and loved ones. There is fear that family members may find out they suffer from social anxiety, and then view them differently or outright reject them. This is almost never true, but the fear of this happening makes many people with social anxiety stay in their dark closet.

The social anxiety doesn’t just stop if we tell it to; it takes time and effort to learn how to overcome it, or at best, learn to live with it comfortably. Only those with social anxiety can understand the frustration that comes with people saying “just get over it,” because if we could, we certainly would.

Many people, unfortunately, have no idea what people go through who have social anxiety, so hopefully, this list will shed some light on the disorder.

  1. Our idea of a great evening is staying at home with television, a book, or the Internet. We seem to be able to communicate on Facebook or Pinterest, but in person, we just can’t find the words. It’s so easy to communicate when we don’t have to do it face-to-face, and we do not understand why this is so.
  2. We are always forced to attend a party. We arrive, certain that everyone is judging and evaluating us, and find an excuse to leave early or, unable to do that, we find a corner where we can be by self. If we are introduced to someone, we cannot find the words to strike up a conversation with that person and if s/he attempts to, we respond with one-word or short phrase answers. That person soon leaves for more interesting conversation elsewhere, and we feel left out and shunned.
  3. We feel trapped (in a vicious cycle). We realize that our thoughts and actions don’t make rational sense, but we feel doomed to repeat them anyway. We don’t know any other way to handle scenarios in our lives. It is difficult for us to change our habits because we don’t know how.
  4. We take our lunch to work. Not because it’s cheaper, but because we need an excuse not to go out to lunch with our co-workers. When we are invited to happy hour, we find an excuse not to be able to attend, and eventually, they stop inviting us. People come to view us as anti-social when, in fact, we are really just fearful, and we cannot explain why.
  5. We are unable to contribute to conversations that are occurring around us. Even when we might have something good to add to the discussion, because we are afraid that someone will think our contribution unworthy or might criticize it.
  6. We seem to be tired all of the time. This is not because we have engaged in any strenuous activity, but, rather is a result of living in a continued stressful state. Chronic anxiety is exhausting, and soon we’ll see sleep as an escape.
  7. We experience rapid heartbeat, sweating, and heavy breathing when we are in uncomfortable social situations. These are physical reactions to our anxiety and we cannot control them. We are certain that everyone around us notices these physical responses, and that makes we want to remove ourself from a situation even more.
  8. We are hypersensitive to criticism and evaluation. We interpret things in a negatively skewed way. Our brain’s default position is irrational and negative. Even a minor misunderstanding can lead to a lengthy period of self-criticism. Sometimes others try to offer us advice, and we can take it the wrong way. We avoid events or activities where we can be judged, and this contributes to our lack of experience and sociability.
  9. We are overwhelmed when there are more than just a few people in a room. Every noise, light, smell, and action is taken in, and we cannot process it all or filter things out. It is as if we are being bombarded by too much at once, and the result is that we go into flight mode and find any way to remove ourself from the situation.
  10. We tune out when several people are speaking. We go into your comfort zone in which you are at least temporarily safe. We shut everything out, and people around us are confused by our behavior. Sometimes, they may think of us as aloof or rude, even though we have a strong desire to be a part of the social experience.
  11. We are overly concerned about our hair, our complexion, our dress and our look in general. Because we are certain that everyone is judging and evaluating us on these things. In fact, most people really do have their own issues, their own priorities, and their minds are not on us. It’s impossible for us to accept this, even though we actually realize that our thinking is irrational at that moment.
  12. We engage in bruxism. Grinding our teeth or clenching our jaw, and it is almost as if this is a completely unconscious behavior (and in many cases it is). We are unable to stop it, even though we know it is unhealthy, and we are certain that others are noticing and think there is something wrong with us.
  13. We lose sleep or daydream, imagining the worst possible scenarios. Even though we understand that those things will probably never happen. This activity only serves to increase our anxiety level and our continued need to isolate ourself. Again, we understand that our thinking is negative, but we don’t have the tools to turn it off and think of the positive things in our life.
  14. We are prone to panic attacks. Events that immobilize us and cause us to seek medical help when the real culprit is just our anxiety. There is nothing physically wrong with us, but we are convinced there is. An astute medical professional will perhaps pick up on the issue and recommend a counselor or therapist who may be able to help us. Take this as a gesture of kindness, not as an affront.
  15. We do want others to understand your anxiety, but we have a difficult time explaining it to them. We don’t want to show that kind of weakness for fear we will be judged or quietly criticized. In fact, most people are empathetic and understanding if we would give them the chance, but our fear always seems to get in the way.

Originally published at bayart.org on September 1, 2016.