social anxiety: what is it?

If you’re reading this, you probably already know what social anxiety is. Maybe you’ve already read all the formal definitions? Or you experience social anxiety everyday in your life? You know what it is, in other words; you don’t need me telling you. Well, I’d like to offer up an alternative definition–a subjective definition. Why? Put simply, we all know what social anxiety is objectively: we know that it’s the anxiety we get in social situations. It’s the worry and fear we get when we think about interacting with people and being judged by them. It’s those irrational thoughts that won’t go away. I know that. You know that. Doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists know that. In my experience though–living with social anxiety, seeking treatment, meeting others with social anxiety–I know that social anxiety is much, much more than just the basic DSM definition. It’s subjective, like any disorder. There’s varying degrees of intensity, specific and generalized. People experience much different physical symptoms. For me, sweating is huge. It’s something I constantly worry about. For others, it may be blushing or shaking. I’m going to offer up my interpretation, which, I hope will get you to think about how social anxiety affects you personally so that you can find your own definition.

When I first went to the psychologist about my anxiety, I talked about it objectively, without really thinking about how it affects me personally. It took a long time for me to be able to open up about it–and an even longer time to get the right treatment, tailored for my specific needs. Think of it this way: the better you understand how social anxiety affects you, the easier it is for you to explain to others how you experience anxiety. If your psychologist or psychiatrist understand this better, they can provide better treatment. It’s that simple.

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Aside for medical professionals, I’ve told very few people about my anxiety in the real world, and those I have told, more often than not, respond by saying something like, “Everybody gets nervous and anxious sometimes in social situations. It’s normal.” This sort of response doesn’t help. In fact, trivializing my problems only exacerbates them. This post serves as my response to them–the things I should have said. First off, in a sense, they’re right: it’s easy to forget that most people get shy, nervous, and anxious in social situations at one time or another. Just knowing that, though, doesn’t help when I’m flooded with anxiety at a party or work meeting. Also, there’s a big difference between social anxiety and shyness and introversion, as well as just feeling “normal” anxiety and nervousness and worry and fear in social situations. Social anxiety isn’t just about what happens during the social situation itself. In fact, in my experience, the worry before the event and the brooding after are much more intense and troublesome than the actual anxiety during the event. The before and after are what separates social anxiety from “normal” anxiety.

Before, during, after?

I get anticipatory anxiety when there’s an upcoming social event. Depending on the situation, this anxiety can come anywhere from two days before the event to several months. For example, I have two class presentations in December. I’m already freaking out over them. The bigger the event, the more intense my anxiety will be, and, often times, the anticipatory anxiety is much worse than the anxiety during the event itself. If the social situation will just be one or two people, I generally don’t get much anticipatory anxiety. However, if the event is a large social gathering where I know I’ll have to be in the spotlight (like a work meeting or class presentation), the anxiety will come as soon as I find out about the event and stay with me until it takes place.

Anticipatory anxiety can be crippling. It usually involves hypothetical thinking: I envision the social situation, picturing who will be there, what I’ll be wearing, and how I’ll act. I usually get very detailed with conversations: I’ll say this, the person(s) will respond with this, and I’ll have the perfect response to that. In my head it’s all perfect. Logically, I know this thinking doesn’t serve me. Social situations are not controllable, scientific experiences. They’re unpredictable. They’re sometimes illogical. You can’t plan for them. Sure, if it’s a work meeting or presentation, you can practice for that, anticipating people’s questions, but normal, everyday social gatherings cannot be planned for. It’s too hard. It sets up unrealistic expectations that I can never live up. It takes me out of the present moment, and it just sets me up for failure. Logically I know that. But sometimes my logic isn’t the most rational.

For me, anticipatory anxiety doesn’t just happen in my head; a lot happens in my body, too: feelings, emotions, and memories come up, my body feels tense and it aches. Sometimes I don’t even know my anxiety is anticipatory in nature. It’s so frustrating to feel anxious and not know why. In those instances, I generally try to distract myself with something, but the anxiety grows. Like me, it wants to be seen and heard. It needs to be felt. It needs to matter. But looking at it is very difficult. Being in my body when I’m anxious is very, very uncomfortable. The longer I go without addressing my feelings, though, the greater the anxiety gets. Often times, the anticipatory anxiety follows me right into the social situation itself, at which point, I’m so beat up, so flooded with anxiety there’s no hope for me. I fail without event giving myself a chance to succeed.

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During the social situation, I’m generally flooded with thoughts, so flooded, in fact, that I can’t connect with any other thoughts besides anxious one’s. This flooding generally starts about an hour or two before the event. Before that, I’m pretty calm: I can connect with my thoughts and I don’t have any of the physical symptoms of anxiety, but there’s just this ugly feeling inside–this feeling that tells me something bad is going to happen to me. There’s no tangible thoughts telling me what this “bad” thing is specifically (unless I’m having extreme anticipatory anxiety, of course). I can just feel deep down this impending doom, coming closer and closer to me.

As the days before the event change to hours, that impending doom becomes more defined. Thoughts materialize, telling me, Everyone will think I’m strange or weird, they’ll think I’m a failure–and they’re right, I won’t know what to say, People will see how anxious and nervous I am and because of this, no one will want to talk to me. The anxiety digs deeper, becoming stronger: I start sweating, my heart beat picks up, I feel light-headed, sometimes I shake, sometimes it’s even hard to breath. Panic sets in. I do anything to get out of going. If I can’t avoid the event the anxiety continues to strengthen, the physiological symptoms increase. At large social gatherings, I’m usually completely flooded when I enter them. I can’t smile, at first. I can barely speak. I can manage a few hellos, but small-talk is almost impossible. Once the attention is off me, I calm down a bit and can manage some conversation, but the anxiety stays with me, increasing intensity when I have to talk about myself or when then spotlight is back on me.

When I’m not talking to people, I’m constantly looking for signs that people are judging me: not smiling at me, not giving me eye contact, not approaching me to talk, not looking at me. This behavior is self-fulfilling. It reinforces the anxiety. I also use distractions to take the attention off of me. I say one-liner jokes. I eat. I chew gum. I ask questions. I listen. I watch TV. I read a magazine. I play with a cat or dog. I smoke. I drink. I try to be outlandish: growing a beard or my hair out. Anything to distract people from my words, so they won’t have to hear my true feelings and opinions. I’m so afraid people are going to negatively judge me and not like me. But, in reality, not opening up to people keeps them away. I don’t make connections. People don’t know who I really am.

What’s more, when people do talk to me, I’m flooded and disconnected from my thoughts, I often don’t know what to say. When someone asks a question my goal is to say the first thing that comes to mind and say it quickly so I can get the attention off me so I can go back to just watching and observing and reinforcing the anxiety. If the anxiety becomes too great, I flee to the bathroom or to a spare bedroom or something to recharge. But I never leave. If I leave I have to say goodbye, and by doing so, the attention is back to me again.I’d rather stay put and suffer, which is exactly what I do: I hide until the anxiety dissipates and am able to go back and suffer some more until I have to flee again.

It never ends. It never, ever ends.

***

Even when it’s over, it’s not really over. I carry social situations around with me long after they occurred. I constantly brood on the negatives from social events, picking out where I failed to lived up to my expectations. I go over the event over and over again: I should have said this, when this person said this. I should have smiled more. I should have been more open, more relaxed, more willing to listen. And then I re-frame it by picturing myself back in the event. But this time I’m someone totally different. I’m free from anxiety, so I can converse freely. It all goes well this time around, in my head, and I tell myself it will be like that from now on–that I’ll be this new person, free from anxiety.

Sometimes I’ll spend weeks looking at an event in my mind. I won’t even know I’m doing it either. It’s hard to consciously catch that behavior, and when I do, it seems even harder to remain conscious and not lose myself again in negative thoughts about the event. It’s frustrating, and it doesn’t help. I only look at the negative aspects, so I can say, See! You are a failure. It sometimes takes weeks for me to move past the negative parts and view the situation more objectively. Social situations are never going to go how I want them to. There are always going to be failures, negative aspects. But, whenever I look at the big picture, I can see that it’s not that bad. I can show up. I can talk. I can function. I may not be the most comfortable, but I’m there–and that’s what matters the most. Until that point–when I can look at things more objectively–I’m lost in my negative thoughts which can lead me into a depression. Then once I’m out of the depression, viewing things rationally, I often start obsessing over a new social event. I’m carried right from depression back to a state of anxiety (anticipatory) again.

I can never get a break, and, over time, these cycles build on each other, becoming stronger and stronger. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to break the cycle and be “normal” again.

 

What is “normal”?

Finally, I want to digress a bit and re-think or re-frame what it means to be “normal”. If it’s “normal” to experience some anxiety in social situations then my goal to be completely free from anxiety is unrealistic. Let’s go one step further: I think we can all agree that to a certain degree society is responsible for our nervousness and anxiety. We are constantly bombarded with commercials and advertisements, telling us who we should be and what we should buy–and if we are not that person they want or don’t buy the things they want, we’re total crap. Moreover, when our friends, family members, and role models buy into this system of consumption, there’s even more pressure to confirm. If we don’t, we will be labeled as different. Differences are good, but when you’re a introverted and highly sensitive person (which I am) and doing all you can to fit it (which I did), differences are what set you apart and can eventually plant the seed for social anxiety.

Plus, we’re programmed to believe that anxiety is the enemy, so we learn to suppress our worries and fears. Suppressing them only makes them grow. We then have to push them deeper and deeper via drugs, alcohol, or food. (All of the above, in my case.)

My point is this: if you take away society, would the anxiety go away as well? I think it would still be there, but it would be different. There’s always something to fret about. If you run from society, living your life in seclusion, your fears will shift; they won’t disappear. So, why do we (or “I”) have this obsession to be totally free from anxiety, if it’s not “normal”? That’s simple. I already answered it: because society tells us being anxiety free is the way to be, even if it’s impossible. So, the very thing that causes us to experience much of our anxiety also tells us that we shouldn’t be experiencing anxiety. By just being aware of that and shifting our attention away from external influences, we can begin to ease the anxiety. But remember: it will never go away completely. No matter how many drugs you take or how many binges you go on, the anxiety will find a way to get through. It’s like trying to shut out all light from a room during the middle of the day. Light always finds a way in.

Re-think “normal”, turn inward, be content with having some anxiety. Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Also, you know this, but sometimes I forget: I am not an expert. I’m not formally trained in psychology or clinical therapy. I am, however, college educated, in graduate school, and I’ve read countless numbers of books on social anxiety, depression, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. I’ve also utilized a number of different treatments. Most importantly, I’m aware of my problems and how they affect me. If you asked my parents what they think of social anxiety and depression, they’d probably refer to them as being something that someone else has, even though they experience them too. I think I have enough experience and understanding to create knowledge, in other words. I think what I have to say matters.

That said, I do not have the answers. I can only share what I’ve come to know from living with social anxiety and depression and what I’ve learned from observing others and from the knowledge taken from books and first-hand accounts of anxiety and depression. As I share, my hope is that we–yes, you and I–will find some answers together.

Conclusion

So, that’s my definition–that’s how social anxiety affects my life. It’s not easy writing about this, but I’ve found that talking or writing about the things I avoid, helps me to forge a deeper connection with myself. It’s really the first step towards recovery. I urge you to look at how anxiety (or depression) affects your life and come up with your own definition so you can not only better explain your situation to your medical provider and get better treatment, but also for yourself: to understand, to connect, and to learn to appreciate.

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One response to “social anxiety: what is it?

  1. Hi Mike, thank you for your comment on my blog. I replied on my blog, but realised it might not notify you, so decided to copy and paste it here too.

    Your blog post was very informative, and even helped me make sense of some of my own experiences with social anxiety.

    I could really relate to the part where you spoke about imagining yourself in the situation prior to the event and imagining it exactly as you think or hope it to be. When I’m in those shoes, I tend to imagine every possible outcome that could happen to attempt to “mentally prepare” myself for the occasion, even though I know that it won’t do any good to do so. It just tends to make the “flood” of anxious thoughts worse at the actual event.

    Thanks for your insight about changing this behaviour. I wish you the best of luck with this, I hope it gets easier for you. From reading your blog it sounds like it has become very severe for you. I’m glad you’re working on it with your therapist and hope you can be free of it some day.

    Take care.

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