If there’s one thing that haunted me most in my childhood, and still rears it’s ugly head often in my adulthood, is social anxiety disorder. It made it so I was mute in pre-school. It made it so I couldn’t go to a school bathroom until high school; I had several accidents in elementary because I couldn’t raise my hand and ask and was too nervous to go during breaks in general. When I got stung by a bee in class I sat there for an hour, unable to speak, until the pain urged tears down my cheeks and the teacher asked what was wrong. I couldn’t ask questions when I got confused in class, so I fell behind in Math especially. In middle school I did poorly in every subject besides literature, and in high school I failed chemistry, algebra three times, and skipped every other day to get high because I couldn’t stand being in a classroom where my normal level of anxiety, usually about the height of the clouds in the atmosphere, sky rocketed into space. In college old habits repeat themselves; I struggle, especially in math and science, because of my inability to ask for help as often as I should.
I was that weird kid in middle school who stands close to the larger groups of kids to pretend she has friends.The one friend I made in middle school went with me to high school and I sat with her group of friends. I have yet to make any new friends in college, partly because I don’t want to put in all the effort friendships take and partly because I wouldn’t know how if I tried.
Social anxiety disorder is bigger than being nervous. It dominates your life much like any other disordered thinking does. Social events to me are a lock and key situation where the key is an algorithm my brain can’t decipher. I’ve had this anxiety for so long there are cues and social developmental milestones I never reached. Speaking with me in person is like speaking to a nervous seven year old.
That being said, I’ve worked on my anxiety tremendously over the last few years and with maturity comes the ability to realize my thoughts aren’t rational and that people aren’t constantly laughing at me or chatting about me or calling me stupid.
But there’s a problem with just calling Social Anxiety Disorder “social anxiety” or “Shy”. That’s very vague. Shyness could mean anything: maybe you’re anxious speaking to a group of people or in front of a group of people, but do well regardless. Maybe you get a little nervous in class but you plow through it and it’s never impaired your life in any way, shape or form. You may have social anxiety, you may be shy, but you do not have Social Anxiety Disorder.
If you ruminate on every little thing every person has said to you today, last week, last month, maybe those few years ago and still get an overwhelming sensation of guilt and humiliation, as if those people are still laughing at you; and you avoid several social situations (including minor contact like having to walk through the doors at a grocery store) and instead stay in your house and argue with your brain over how stupid you’re being; and you feel overwhelmed in a large group of people because you have to focus on all their conversations to make sure they’re not making fun of you; and you feel inadequate in conversation because you’re not sure if what you said was stupid or that what you said is irrelevant all the time; and you constantly believe the expressions on people’s faces are contorted in disgust when you speak; and you have to mold your life around this monster in your head, live according to its needs, you may have Social Anxiety Disorder.
This could be Mild, Moderate, or Severe, but the key point is it impairs your life’s functionality in some way.
When I clicked on the this BuzzFeed Article about social anxiety in college, I was interested in whether or not they equated social anxiety as a mental disorder with shyness. I won’t go through all 25 tips, but I will talk about the most helpful and least helpful.
Least Helpful (assuming said person with social anxiety disorder has had little/no):
- Get Participation Points Through Asking Questions Rather That Answering Them: If I can’t answer a question because I feel like my answer is going to be judged, laughed at, and etched into stone in everyone’s fucking tombstone, how the hell am I going to rationalize asking them? This was my first hint that this article was most likely written for people suffering from some mild anxiety issues. If you can ask a question but not answer them, you’re probably not social anxious. We’re so wrapped up in other people’s opinions of us, asking or answering questions are equally as bad; either way you can be judged for being stupid.
- Practice Presentations during Office Hours Before You Have To Do Them In Front Of Classmates: I’m not denying this is an excellent tactic if you have trouble remembering what you’re going to say because you have trouble remembering things. From my experience, it doesn’t work. I practiced for two weeks memorizing a speech and recited it over and over again to people and still forget the entire thing in two seconds during the presentation. Instead, I stood stuttering until my embarrassment caused me to sit down. If you’ve had practice reducing your anxiety this doesn’t happen often (I don’t have this issue any longer with presentations) but it’s worth noting that anxiety causes some crazy fright in your brain and as a result, your memory is shot. But my opinion is biased.
Most Helpful (Also from my perspective):
- Write Down Talking Points Before Classes Where Participation Counts: Hell, I’d extend this to any class. When you have something to talk about it’s a lot easier, especially because you can look back at your paper and remind yourself why you were so passionate about whatever you wrote down. Seminars where participation is required is a pretty common thing in college, especially in graduate school, so it’s a good idea to start early if you’re a freshman. I do feel much more comfortable speaking in groups with people to this day and rarely have to write key points down anymore. I can almost fully count on my brain to store the thoughts and recall them when needed. I still struggle, but it’s remarkably less due to this tactic.
- Figure Out What Your Social Goals Are& Make some small ones to help you obtain your goals: This is a big one. Do you want a huge circle of friends or do you want one or two close ones? You don’t have to have either, and I think a lot of us with Social Anxiety Disorder (especially if you haven’t had much help overcoming it) think you have to be social because if you’re not, you’re weird. That’s our anxiety talking. You don’t have to do anything but die and pay damn taxes. I enjoy quick outings with groups every once in a while, but having a huge group of friends would kill me. That’s my preference, without my anxiety speaking for me. My only goals are to reduce my anxiety to the point where I can comfortably carry on daily life. Other than that, I’m content having only a few acquaintances.
- Understand that getting rid of your anxiety isn’t the goal: living with it is.
- Don’t avoid every single anxious situation: Slowly but surely I’ve been able to wake up in the morning with my heart pounding, my hands shaking, and my head telling me “stay home, stay home, stay home”, accept it, and do the exact opposite. As much as it pains you to think about leaving your comfort zone, it’s the only way you can learn. Don’t think about it as changing who you are and do not ever, ever, ever think it’s a way to fix you. There’s nothing wrong with you. If anything, these are just tactics to help you learn a new way of life. You don’t have to change into an extrovert to not be socially anxious (unless you want to); it’s entirely up to you. Either way takes work and Work is always equal to Force X Distance. In other words, Force yourself out of bed and Distance yourself from the house. #PhysicsIsLife.