I can pinpoint the exact day my social anxiety began. One day, in pre-school, a teacher’s assistant was measuring each student’s height for an in-class project. Once she measured me, she blurted out, “Wow, you’re a big gal!” The other kids laughed, and I immediately felt my face burn, and my hands shake. I lowered my head so I wouldn’t make eye contact with my classmates, and for the rest of the day, hoping that no one would tease me in class or at the playground. Although this was an everyday, minor, school day occurrence, that moment kick-started the tsunami that is social anxiety.
More Than Just Shyness
As a young child and teenager, I always wished that jokes or comments that other kids or adults would tell me would roll off my back or that I could come up with a snappy comeback. Whether I was with family members at a gathering or around my classmates and teachers, I would feel uneasy and nervous, as if I was being watched and sized up. I became overly self-critical in social situations, telling myself that others must think I’m a nervous wreck or asking themselves, “what is she doing here?” The smallest incidents, such as asking the teacher if I could use the restroom, left me with the same burning feeling and shaking hands, only now, my heart would race, and I would feel like the room was closing in on me. I prayed every day that no one would notice and comment about how nervous I looked, although a few teachers did. My parents chalked it up to me being extra shy, but deep down, I knew it had to be something else.
At the beginning of my freshman year of high school, I was 14, and my parents sent me to the doctor to make sure “everything was ok.” After a healthy diagnosis and negative blood work results, I went about as a regular teenager, but every day was a challenge. Some days I pretended I was sick, just to avoid school and everyone there, even to avoid the bus ride to school. I had my friends, I had hobbies, but still, something would always hold me back from being confident and using my full potential. If only I knew about social anxiety, then.
A Problem for Many
Social anxiety is also known as social anxiety disorder (SAD) or social phobia. As of 2020, SAD has affected 40 million people in the United States, 18.1% of the adults.1 Women are 60% more likely to be impacted than men. 2 The onset is usually around age 13 but can occur in young children or adults. A person with social anxiety immediately feels uneasy in or avoids common social situations to the point where it starts to interfere with their everyday life. Some of the emotional and behavioral symptoms can include:
Intense fear of meeting or talking to strangers
Fear of embarrassing self in public by saying or doing the wrong thing
Being anxious and fearful about an upcoming social event
Predicting the worst outcome for any scenario
Spending time over-analyzing one’s behavior after a social situation (e.g. “I should’ve said this instead of that.”)
Some of the physical symptoms can include:
Feeling faint or dizzy
Shaking hands and shaky voice
Upset stomach or diarrhea 3
The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but researchers and doctors have various conclusions. Genetics, traumatic childhood situations, or even a chemical imbalance can cause SAD. Some medical field professionals believe that SAD is due to a hyperactive amygdala, the area of the brain that controls the emotions, memories, and the “flight or fight” response. 4 Another theory is that SAD may be linked to either the amygdala being too small, too large, or had experienced damage.
When I was 28, I read an article in Time magazine about social anxiety, cried uncontrollably. I saved the article next to my bedside. I had finally found the definition of what I was living with and learned that it can be controlled. I immediately scheduled an appointment with a therapist and enrolled in cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy for the next or the next three years. In 2005, after holding out for fear of becoming dependent on medication, I started taking fluoxetine. The combination lifted me out of the fog that I had been living in for so many years. In 2018, I added bupropion along with fluoxetine, taking me to a new level of confidence.
Even today, there are moments when I feel like the 5-year-old back in pre-school. Although social anxiety is a disorder, I’ve learned that it doesn’t define me. On the days I feel insecure, I’m can now rationalize any situation and tell myself that, yes, maybe some people do notice my mistakes but only spend 5 seconds thinking about it and go back to their issues and worries.
At best, being socially anxious has made me an empathetic person. I can anticipate other people’s feelings, and a few times I’ve been told I’m a mind reader because I would say another person’s thoughts out loud. Then I joke and warn them to watch what they think, so that breaks the ice for both of us. It’s true that with age comes wisdom – I know what to and what not to say, especially avoiding stating the obvious. I’m aware that the next person I meet may have social anxiety, too.
3 “Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)”. www.mayoclinic.org.https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/social-anxiety-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353561
4 “What on Earth is the Amygdala and How Is It Related to Social Anxiety?”. www.overcomingsocialanxiety.com. http://overcomingsocialanxiety.com/amygdala-and-social-anxiety/