When I tell someone I have social anxiety, the response is generally somewhere in between an eye roll and, “Yeah, sometimes I just want to stay home, too.” But it’s more than getting overwhelmed by crowds or not wanting to be around people. It’s a very real anxiety disorder (it’s in the DSM, even!) that often controls my behavior and causes my body to react in really crappy ways, to the point where I more often than not require medication to manage it.
Here are six things about life with social anxiety that may help you understand it a little better:
- Going somewhere new is a nightmare. I worry about where to park, where the entrance is, and what I should do once I get inside. I arrive unreasonably early and sit in my car, watching what other people do so that I can do the same thing, often rehearsing my steps mentally from the moment I step out of the car. I’m never the first person in the door if I can help it, and once I’m in the door, I have a moment of near-panic as I try to figure out where I’m supposed to go.
- I always think people are watching me. It’s not vanity, it’s terror. My heart races, my hands shake, I can’t think of words. I make more of a spectacle of myself by trying not to call any attention to me whatsoever.
- Large crowds can completely shut me down. It’s like watching a movie where the POV character is at regular speed and everything around them is moving at different speeds of fast forward, all at the same time. Every jostle, every unexpected loud noise, every foot of space that I can’t move just pushes me more into my own self-perpetuating cycle of panic. I start to have trouble breathing. I can’t focus on anything. I start to sweat. My heart races. If someone’s talking to me, I can’t process what they’re saying.
- I’ve learned how to fake it at a party, but not very well or for very long. I do better if I’m holding something. I’m more comfortable sitting down on the periphery of a group of people. I flit from room to room, mostly because then people don’t notice that I’m not making conversation. I don’t behave that way because I don’t like the people who are there, I behave that way because I’m terrified of a conversational (or physical) misstep that will draw attention to me in any way.
- People think I can’t possibly have “real” social anxiety because I talk to hundreds of people a day at work. I’m capable of everyday social interactions; my job depends on it. But that’s familiar. I know what to expect, what role I play, what I should say and do, and most of the time, the interactions are on my turf, in my space, playing by my rules. I’m really good at that. Remove me from a familiar, comfortable environment, and my confidence and ability to interact normally start eroding almost immediately.
- When I’m around friends, especially friends who know about my social anxiety, I do pretty well. I can go out, have dinner, get drinks, meet for coffee, and do all the things that people do with their friends. But I’ve missed out on a lot of things that I’m sure I would have had a blast doing because I’m too terrified to do something new, to put myself in a new situation where I don’t have my bearings. If I’m feeling strong, I can push through that fear and go out. Unfortunately, I don’t feel strong all that often.