TORI S. BARENDREGT | REGULARS
Life looks fun. I know because I watch people live it every day. Not just in the media, I understand those drama movies and TV shows are idealised and romanticised versions of life. But I mean, just in everyday life, the ordinary people I encounter through my own routine, doing what they probably reckon are pretty mundane things. I see them in the breakroom at work. I can overhear their conversations about workouts or cars or video games. I see them walking through the shops, clumps of girls gossiping, catching up over a coffee or drinks. I see them in the classroom, groups of my peers at tables across the room, deep in conversation about this week’s content. I scroll through my Facebook feed or Instagram and see the remnants of parties and outings, forever preserved in memory through the captured photographs. Big smiles on their faces, joking and laughing. I wish I could live that life.
I am shy. I am an introvert. I am anti-social. But on top of it all, I have mild social anxiety. Social anxiety and shyness are often confused with each other, and though they share some characteristics, they are actually different things. Shyness and social anxiety are usually distinguished by the degree of impact on the individual’s life, such as how badly it impairs their functioning in social situations, how intense the fear is, and the level of avoidance they go to when confronted with a situation that affects them. It might be helpful to consider it as a spectrum where shyness is on one end and not as severe and social anxiety is on the other as the more serious. But shyness can also be distinguished more as a character trait and social anxiety as a mental condition.
People who experience social anxiety thus usually experience severe symptoms. Some physical symptoms include excessive sweating, trembling, blushing, stuttering, nausea and diarrhoea. This is also accompanied by anxiety and excessive worrying, which can be increased by these physical symptoms if the person is afraid that other people will notice them, even though their perception of this is often worse than it actually is, and no one even really notices it. This results in avoidance as the individual will do anything to keep themselves from experiencing this.
I have always considered myself to just be a shy person. Growing up, I didn’t have many friends, and it was difficult for me to find them. I would have one or maybe two friends a year, but often I found that I would spend my recess and lunch at school by myself. It is not that I didn’t want friends. I just didn’t seem capable of making them.
I didn’t start thinking that it might be more serious than shyness until I was in high school at a Halloween party. I was having a hard time getting involved and was just standing against a wall, watching some people dance when they tried to get me to join them. This was awfully nice of them to do, but panic welled up inside of me. I shook my head and backed away from them. They kept insisting that I join them, and the more they pressured me, the more I could feel my heartbeat increasing and the tears welling up in my eyes, so I ran out of the room. I have since avoided going to parties.
Social anxiety can be triggered in different ways depending on the person. Most commonly, it comes from a fear of performing in front of others. For example, giving speeches and presentations; creates an intense fear of being judged, criticised, laughed at or humiliated. But this can honestly be triggered by anything, a seemingly normal activity that other people don’t give a second thought to, such as eating in front of others. If an individual’s level of self-consciousness is high enough about it, it can give them anxiety.
Social anxiety can also be caused by different things, including temperament, family history or environment. It usually starts developing in children or adolescents, when people are supposed to learn social behaviour. For this reason, children who are shy or timid are at higher risk of becoming socially anxious. But it may also be a genetic trait. Sometimes, it results from how a person is treated, such as being embarrassed or humiliated by others in a social situation.
I find that I cannot function properly with other people. Put me in a detached or professional situation, and I am fine. I can answer customers’ questions at work, speak to my bosses and teachers about the day’s work, and give presentations fine, even if my heart is racing a little. But put me in a personal interaction, and I freeze up. I worry about what other people would think of me if they know who I am. I once had my best friend in high school attack my personality, calling me rude, self-centred, loud and an attention-seeker. Coming from the only person outside my family that I would talk to, this hit me hard. I started wondering why she was my friend at all if she thought this of me. I sounded horrible coming from her lips. How could she possibly like me? I’ve recoiled into myself more and more when meeting new people, fearing that they will find this out and hate me too.
Though this occurred years ago, the effects have remained. It has taken over a year for me to talk conversationally with my co-workers. I still don’t do it a lot and am in a mild panic when I do. My head is racing with different thoughts: Uh oh, someone’s talking to me. This is exciting. This is scary. Oh my gosh, they asked me a question. How do I answer? What do I say? How much do I tell them? I don’t want to overshare. Wait, what are they talking about? I don’t know anything about that topic. Should I ask? No, I don’t want them to think I’m stupid. Why are they so much more interesting than me? What if they find out I’m boring? What if they don’t like me? This is so embarrassing… Quite often, I just look at them with a tight-lipped smile and nod. I am probably the picture of uncomfortable and awkward, and the person I am talking to feels unwelcome and unencouraged, and they do not try to speak to me again.
Social anxiety is treatable. There are psychological treatments available, including cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which focuses on identifying the thought patterns that cause an individual’s anxiety and then adopting new ones to reduce anxiety and improve coping skills. Verywell Mind states that nearly 70% of individuals with social anxiety can be successfully treated with CBT. Behaviour therapy (different from CBT) then focuses on feel-good activities to reverse patterns of avoidance. It also involves exposure therapy, exposing an individual to what makes them anxious in steps to help them overcome their fear. There are also medical treatments available and several strategies to help manage anxiety, including slow breathing, having a healthy lifestyle, and staying in the present moment. Beyond Blue offers more in-depth information about treatment, management, and getting help.
There is nothing I want more than to have friends, proper human connection with other people. I am lucky that I recognised I had a problem early on before it got too much worse where I would need to seek professional help. Logic tells me that if people voluntarily talk to me, then I mustn’t be that embarrassing, and it must be in my head. But sometimes, it is hard to convince myself of that. For the most part, I can survive in a social situation, but it requires a great deal of mental application and self-reassurance that it is all in my head. There are quite a few people out there who live with this condition and are not getting the help they need. I try every day, coaching myself and challenging myself and maybe one day, I will be a seamless part of those conversations at work or in the shops or in the classroom or in those photographs from social events on social media.