There’s introversion, there’s shyness, and then there’s social anxiety. Commonly misunderstood, social anxiety is often lumped in with being shy—but there’s a lot more to it than just that.
Social anxiety disorder (sometimes referred to as SAD or social phobia) is a diagnosable condition that affects 15 million Americans, of which women are a slight majority. While somewhat treatable with therapy and medication, it can be a lifelong condition, stubbornly following those who endure it from season to season. Sadly, this leads many of its sufferers to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms, whether that be alcohol to loosen up or total isolation so as to never confront their troubles at all.
More often than not, social anxiety is written off as a childish shyness that we’ll eventually outgrow and not something to be taken seriously. But after years of suffering from it myself, I’ve realized my proclivity to stay quiet isn’t as simple as it seems, and the signs of it were always there.
But what exactly are the signs, anyway? Here are four telltale clues that you might suffer from SAD:
1. Opening up to people is a challenge.
Engaging in conversation with people I’ve never met before (and honestly, even those that I’ve met plenty) has never been second nature to me. I feel like I can never really say what’s on my mind, like whatever I’m feeling or thinking is boring or isn’t important. Sometimes it feels as though every thought possibly worth sharing just disappears from my mind, leaving my thoughts on a “What do I say now? How do I fill the silence?” loop.
Letting people in is pretty scary—we open ourselves up to rejection by doing so. And while that’s an uncomfortable concept, it’s important that we remember how essential it is to our emotional health that we have close connections with others, kindred spirits on whom we can rely.
It’s important that we remember how essential it is to our emotional health that we have close connections with others.
2. You’re constantly worried about what others think.
Part of my reticence in social situations has always been rooted in being worried about the way others perceive me; after all, doesn’t everyone just want to be liked? But my brain jumps from worry to worry: do they think I sound stupid? Are they staring at the pimple on my chin? Was I talking too loud just now? It’s pretty exhausting, to say the least. But when my mind starts down this path, it’s helpful to remind myself that people aren’t really interested in fixating on what’s “wrong” with me - they’re likely more wrapped up in themselves and their own issues and worries.
3. You really hate being the center of attention.
Like, really hate it. From the time I can remember, school presentations, speeches, and even ice-breakers at parties have been the bane of my existence. When you have social anxiety, the thought of so many pairs of eyes on you all at once instantly makes you sweat — especially when you consider the fact that so many things could go wrong. What if you trip? What if the water you’re sipping goes down the wrong pipe? What if you forget what you were saying mid-sentence or keep mispronouncing simple words? But a good thing to think about is the fact that, in all likelihood, none of these things will actually happen. And if they do? We can learn to laugh it off—life goes on.
The thought of so many pairs of eyes on you all at once instantly makes you sweat — especially when you consider the fact that so many things could go wrong.
4. You can physically feel your anxiety.
As it turns out, social anxiety isn’t just a mental and emotional thing—it’s physical, too. Generally speaking, physical manifestations of social anxiety include dizziness, nausea, extreme sweating, and excessive blushing—all things I myself have experienced.
Unfortunately, these symptoms can further compound any discomfort we already feel, and a catch-22 emerges, leading those who suffer from social anxiety to stay in their shell and isolate themselves. Hopeless as we may feel, the most effective way to try to curb these reactions is by challenging ourselves to do the things that make us the most uncomfortable so we can stretch and grow.
As our culture attempts to better understand and acknowledge the mental illnesses we’ve ignored or downplayed in the past, it’s important that we follow suit, making peace with any issues we face on our journey of self-acceptance. And rather than try to power through it ourselves, it’s crucial that we seek help from others—through therapy, friendship, or mentorship.