Mental Illness

Extreme Close-Up in Slow Motion: Living With Social Anxiety

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

By [E] Rachel

I punctuate sentences with Oxford commas, and I punctuate disagreements with changesocks. Proud curmudgeon. Get off my lawn.

10 replies on “Extreme Close-Up in Slow Motion: Living With Social Anxiety”

Thank you for writing this post, I related to so much of what you said. I go through anxiety flare-ups and then periods of time where I’m more okay, and I just went through a bad one, so a lot of this really spoke to me. Especially the part about being strong…that’s the part I still have to learn. At least, I need to learn to feel that way on command. Not quite there yet. But yes, thank you for writing this post.

Social anxiety can be really crippling for a lot of us, and it’s more difficult when some people don’t understand how much it structures how you live life. I also suffer from social anxiety, and the very thought of having to go out into the world to face people can make me feel anything from exhausted to panicked. Even interacting online can be too much on some days and takes a lot of mental wherewithal, especially if those interactions are tense. Thanks for sharing, PoM.

Yay, thank you for writing this! I’m going to save it so I don’t have to explain it to people over and over. Unless it’s in person, which is THE WORST.

I think the hardest thing for me is when I somehow manage to do something really difficult, and then I try to do a similar thing awhile later, and suddenly can’t, like make a phone call about something, or get through some kind of meeting or presentation. And then having that little part of my brain that knows it doesn’t make sense, but not being able to do anything about it. ARGH!

The “feeling strong” thing is key. I think sometimes I need to notice that feeling more and go out and do things while I can.

That person sounds like a jerk!
Funny (and awkward) story, when I was getting my BFA, I had a critique of this piece, then later that day, a classmate called to ask about an assignment due-date. Suddenly she said, “OH MY GOD, YOU HATE TALKING ON THE PHONE! I’M SO SORRY!”
It’s kind of funny how it often either ends up being disbelief or overreaction when I tell people.

Thank you for sharing this. It really ticks me off that social anxiety as a concept/condition has been diluted by its use as throwaway term by people who know little about it, or by pharmaceutical companies whose ads oversimplify it. Also, I thought #3 was really helpful in illustrating how it feels to be socially anxious.

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