Mingling in large groups may be awkward for some, but for people with social anxiety, it’s terrifying. Some might have to leave the situation immediately, while others may simply stand there, unable to say anything.
Social anxiety is characterised as an intense fear that doesn’t go away and can affect everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life. Sufferers are likely to withdraw from social circles and can end up feeling isolated.
There are a lot of misconceptions around social anxiety – many believe it’s “just shyness”, or that someone is being flakey if they cancel on events or rude if they don’t speak when in attendance. To try and raise awareness, we asked people who live with the disorder to share what they want others to know about it.
It’s so much more than shyness. Andrea Murphy has struggled with social anxiety since childhood. Now in her thirties, she says many people equate it to shyness – but it’s far from it. “I promise you that having social anxiety disorder is different to being shy, introverted or nervous,” she writes in a blog post on HuffPost UK. “It’s much more than feeling a little jittery before an interview or having a fear of public speaking.” Rather, Murphy says: “It paralyses you, it robs you of your personality, and it prevents some people from ever achieving their full potential.”
We’re not being rude, we’re just scared. People with social anxiety often worry others find them unfriendly. Fiona Thomas, 32, from Birmingham, says she becomes so tense she can’t move or speak. “It makes me appear incredibly rude,” says the author of Depression In A Digital Age. “Sometimes I can’t speak, hold a conversation or look someone in the eye and it makes me feel really guilty. Quite often I have to message someone afterwards and apologise for my behaviour.”
Tom Dunning, 27, from Lincoln, says in social situations his mind will go blank. When that happens, things will spiral out of control and he’ll get lost down a mental rabbit hole of: “What would have happened if I’d said this?” By the time he thinks of something to say, the moment is gone, he explains. “And people just look at you like: ‘Oh, ok.’”
There is no ‘off’ switch. 19-year-old Ellie Pool, from Cheshire, says social anxiety can happen at any time and once it strikes, there’s no turning it off. Often, she has to leave social situations because of it. “Once it starts flaring up, it can’t be stopped,” she explains. “I used to struggle to explain to those close to me that I wasn’t choosing to avoid a situation because it made me anxious, I physically didn’t have a choice.”
It can be physically debilitating. The physical effects of social anxiety can be just as bad as the mental. “Social anxiety portrays itself with the shortness of breath, dizziness, disorientation, tears and heightening of senses,” explains Ellie. “When a social situation is making your anxiety flare up, you’re not making the choice to leave, you simply have to in order to help your body calm down.” Physical symptoms can include feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat. It might even prompt a panic attack.
Preparing for social events can be just as exhausting. “Social anxiety doesn’t just last for the duration of any social engagement,” says Chris Smith, from Kells, Ireland. “You stress about it beforehand. You try to think of ways to make it as quick and easy as possible. You’ll find yourself thinking of ways to get out of having to do it at all, and if you do manage this, you’ll worry what people think about you constantly cancelling or refusing invitations.”
“You’ll find yourself thinking of ways to get out of having to do it at all, and if you do manage this, you’ll worry what people think about you constantly cancelling or refusing invitations."”
Alison, from Tipperary, Ireland, who preferred not to share her surname, says it often take three or four days to prepare herself for a night out – which means plenty of sleepless nights. The 36-year-old says this is often followed by restless evenings where she will over-analyse every conversation she had, trying to figure out if someone misinterpreted what she told them or felt offended by it. “When people ask why you don’t go out and why you can’t just come down for one drink, they have no idea the fear it puts in you,” she adds.
It feels like no one wants us there. Tom says in a group scenario – even if it’s a group of friends – he doesn’t feel welcome. “If I push myself into it, I just remain quiet because I still have that feeling that I’m not supposed to be there, that no one wants me there,” he explains.
Chris feels the same: “You’ll spend your time wondering what everyone thinks of the silent, awkward weirdo that you’re sure you are,” he explains. “If you’re by yourself at any point, you’ll be certain that everyone else in the room is looking at you with either pity, amusement, or wariness.” For Chris, the worst is when he’s with just one or two people he knows. “Whilst this is probably the most relaxed you’ll be, you’ll also be convinced you’re ruining their fun,” he explains. “If they weren’t stuck with you, they could be having a good time.”
It helps to talk about it. Phil Merrison, 50, has had anxiety on and off over the years and acknowledges that sometimes this has led to social phobia. At work, he would often feel like people were measuring, monitoring and assessing him, he says. In hindsight, he wishes he’d been more open about his struggles. “I worked in a male-dominated environment where these things weren’t talked about because it was not the done thing,” he says. “I felt that it was a weakness at the time, that it would reflect badly on me that I couldn’t cope. My coping strategy was to try and work harder and longer.”
Tom plucked up the courage to tell his closest friends he suffers with social anxiety disorder – and it’s helped massively. “I told them that sometimes I might sit there and be quiet and it’s nothing personal, it’s just who I am,” he explains. “It was a really big step. When I have the nagging feeling that I shouldn’t be there or don’t feel welcome, I know that they know and it makes it that bit easier to want to push myself and join in.”
If you or someone you know needs help, mail firstname.lastname@example.org or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).