I have social anxiety disorder.
It’s a disorder that according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is marked by an extreme fear of being in any social situation. It often leaves those suffering from it, filled with anxiety and extreme bouts of self-consciousness that stems from the very fear of being in the social situation in the first place.
I’m not quite sure what triggered mine or when it started (believe it or not, I used to be quite outgoing), but what I’ve come to understand about it is that it’s a condition that’s not as easily understood as, say, depression is. And we all know how many misconceptions people still have about that.
1. Admitting to having social anxiety disorder isn’t easy.
People often like to think that social anxiety disorder is an excuse some use to get out of going to social events but that’s not the case.
I’ve had some of my closest friends and family members accuse me of being anti-social, refusing to acknowledge that being anti-social and suffering from social anxiety disorder aren’t the same thing.
As someone who suffers from this disorder (and being an introvert on top of it), talking about the levels of anxiousness I feel whenever I have to go out, is a nerve-wrecking and daunting experience.
There are a number of generalised mental health disorders that people often dismiss because they’re seemingly “not serious enough” to be considered on the spectrum of conditions that require medical treatment.
Here’s my tip to you: if someone tells you that they really struggle with any kind of public or collective activity, believe them. And don’t mock them. But most importantly, listen to them. Someone with this condition often struggles to talk in the first place, so the fact that they’re trying to explain what they’re going through is a sign that they trust you with their feelings.
2. Talking is hard. It’s even harder when you’re in a crowd
It’s not that we don’t want to or that we think ourselves better than those in our company, it’s just that our brains work overtime, calculating everything we might say that could sound, well, stupid.
We worry and overanalyse the thoughts in our head so much, that by the time we do attempt to verbalise our thoughts, it manifests itself as a barrage of incoherent verbal clap-trap.
This is the one thing I hate most about my social anxiety disorder, because when I try to express myself, people often laugh in response to the nonsensical words that come out, when instead I had a well, put-together thought in my head.
3. We really, really struggle with making eye contact
Unless we’re really comfortable with someone, our eyes tend to dart all over the place when we’re talking to people.
With social anxiety disorder, comes an extreme feeling of self-consciousness and awkwardness that leave many of us feeling exposed. For me it’s a feeling that is rooted in self-loathing. I don’t dare make eye contact for fear of being found lacking. It doesn’t make sense, but there you have it. Welcome to my brain.
4. We don’t choose to be anti-social
Those closest to me will know that I love to joke and relish in my anti-social and misanthropic tendencies, but the truth is that being anti-social is not always a choice. There are days that I find where I’d love nothing more than to join my colleagues for after work drinks, but simply can’t because crippling self-doubt creeps in.
The truth is that most of us who suffer from social anxiety disorder struggle with feelings of ineptitude and awkwardness and none of us like to be in situations where those qualities (which are very real to us by the way) are highlighted.
Public spaces and crowded places? Definitely places that serve to make us feel much lesser than we are.
5. We spend most of the time hoping you’ll help us to be more comfortable in social situations
I know. I know. It seems unfair to expect you to reach out when we find it so difficult to, doesn’t it? An after all, it’s not your responsibility to help us manage our emotions.
The thing is though, support would be nice. A word of encouragement. Someone just being there, and not necessarily saying anything. Most importantly, someone believing our condition is real and not some made up mental health illness.
It makes the world of difference and leaves us feeling less alien than we already do.