When It’s More Than Just Shyness
Social Anxiety doesn’t have to stop you from living a meaningful life.
As I look into the eyes of the cute little girl with the blondest hair and big brown eyes, the photo of myself as a young child reflects an innocent disregard for what others think of her amidst an adventurous desire to be playful and completely focused in that moment.
When did that innocence fade I wonder? When did that child take on the weight of being concerned by others’ possible negative judgements about her and the simple joy and freedom in living in the now become imprisoned by the fear of being humiliated or appearing odd, strange, unusual due to the physical symptoms of anxiety?
My life as an adolescent and well into my twenties was plagued by Social Anxiety. Social Anxiety is defined as ‘a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.’ (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)).
A key symptom of Social Anxiety for me was blushing and, in the true nature of anxiety, this blushing became a conditioned response, guaranteed to occur in association with particular people and in particular situations. Having idolized the late Princess Diana in my childhood, the endearing coyness of her blushing with bowed head was quite a contrast to the immense agony I felt when I tried to appear ‘normal’ despite my face burning with heat and appearing like a glowing red beacon. Shakiness was also an issue and signing my signature in front of others (a regular process in ‘the old days’ in front of a bank teller) could be quite tortuous. For others, symptoms of Social Anxiety can include excessive sweating, stammering when trying to speak, nausea, diarrhea, and dry throat and mouth.
Public speaking I found abhorrent — my friends from high school still remind me, good-naturedly, ‘to breathe’ in memory of my abrupt departure from class, mid-speech, due to panic. I bravely faced employment interviews despite the tremors including a sense of being like a bobble toy with a wobbling head. I attended to customer service employment tasks with courage and a bright smile whilst excruciating self-doubt and fear of criticism dominated my mind and body. Social Anxiety held on tightly as I progressed through university studies including a Master of Clinical Psychology. Though continually hyper-vigilant to perceived negative judgement from others, including complete strangers, I successfully completed my studies and employment requirements. My social life however was one with much binge drinking in order to feel at ease as the alcohol worked to soften my paranoia about being poorly received by others.
Where does social anxiety come from? Beyond Blue (www.beyondblue.org.au) lists the causes as including temperament with shyness/social inhibition in children/adolescents being a risk factor; family history — a possible genetic predisposition; and learned behaviour — the outcome of poor treatment, public embarrassment or humiliation (e.g. bullying at school). An overactive amygdala has also been linked with social anxiety (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3055419/).
Early on in my psychological angst, I realised from my own experimentation with ways to deal with Social Anxiety, an acceptance approach worked best to manage and even reduce the harrowing physical symptoms of the Social Anxiety. Certainly to focus on my blushing or shaking hands only strengthened the intensity of the symptoms. If I was to, figuratively, nod to these symptoms, even welcome them, the paradoxical result was the intensity of the sensations would reduce and I would build my confidence to continue facing each challenging situation. I knew deep down, regardless of my interest in psychology and my undertaking of associated post-graduate studies, that if I was to avoid fear-provoking situations my life would become increasingly narrower and any chance of fulfillment would dissipate as the anxiety would loom even larger.
So with such an approach of acceptance, including using breathing techniques which calm the nervous system, and some cognitive restructuring (e.g. I do agree that most people are essentially focused on their own lot rather than a significant focus on me), I have made peace with Social Anxiety. Age has certainly helped and navigating challenging life experiences which have taught me lessons such as:
- I am inherently valuable as a human being simply for being alive (no matter what my employment is or my qualifications are or whether I possess many talents and so on);
- What I think about myself is most important;
- I care about the opinions of those who love and support me unconditionally;
- I have reason to believe that everyone, if honest, would admit to fearing being not good enough; and
- I don’t have to wait until I am fixed or cured to live a meaningful life. My Social Anxiety can come along with me for the ride — you never know, it may just get bored…
For support, if you can relate to the fears and symptoms I have described above, there are a wealth of relevant websites which can help you to recognise that many, many people suffer from Social Anxiety — it’s the third largest mental health concern in the world(see http://socialphobia.org/social-anxiety-disorder-definition-symptoms-treatment-therapy-medications-insight-prognosis). You can even kick off your capacity to face these challenges with self-help guides online.
Do not feel you have to go it alone — reach out to loved ones, to an effective medical practitioner or a mental health practitioner who specialises in this vulnerability. Social Anxiety untreated can certainly connect with depression and, believe me, you don’t want to go down this path if you can avoid it. People with Social Anxiety are an incredibly brave population — I know as I have lived in the shadow of this torment and I can assure you that, with the right approach and support, you can live well.