What is Social Anxiety?
Before I say anything else, I need to give an introduction to social anxiety.
Despite being the third most common mental disorder (behind depression and alcoholism), social anxiety is still wildly misunderstood. It is often mistaken as being overly shy, nervous, or introverted. Social anxiety is entirely unrelated to all of those and, contrary to popular belief, even extroverts can have social anxiety.
So what is it? In short, social anxiety is an excessive fear of judgement, perceived judgement, or humiliation in a social situation. The DSM-V gives seven criteria that must be met for an official diagnosis. I’ll summarize for them you:
a persistent fear of one or more social situations
exposure to the feared situation provokes anxiety and potentially triggers an anxiety attack
the person recognizes the fear is unreasonable or excessive
the feared situations are avoided or endured with intense anxiety
the avoidance of the feared situations interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine
the fear and anxiety is persistent, typically lasting 6 or more months
the fear and avoidance is not due to a different condition or effects of a substance (e.g., drugs, medications)
Okay, so that’s pretty specific, but doesn’t really give a great picture. I’ll tell you what it looks like to me. At least, what it used to look like, back in high school.
I’d walk into school and stay by the wall. The wall was safe, the wall had less people. I’d concentrate on walking at the same pace as the majority of the people around me, God forbid I look like a slacker by walking to slow and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was an eager beaver running to class. I made sure my steps were even, that I wasn’t making them too big or too small.
I didn’t just worry about my feet though. I worried about where to keep my hands. Was it totally dorky to hold my backpack straps? Would I look like a freak if they were in my jacket pockets? Oh my gosh, my jacket. Should it be zipped? Unzipped? Other people aren’t even wearing one, should I not be? I can't take it off without taking my backpack off and I can't do that in the middle of the hallway. Speaking of, does my backpack look weird? Am I wearing it too high or too low? What if it’s unzipped?
All of that would take place within thirty seconds of entering the building.
What I really want to point out is the third criteria, “the person recognizes the fear is unreasonable or excessive.” On top of the wave of worries, I was also mentally beating myself up for thinking any of that mattered. I knew it was ridiculous. I know not a single person cared if I still had my jacket on, let alone if it was zipped or not.
That didn’t matter. Even though I knew my worries were pointless, I thought them anyway. I couldn’t stop the thoughts from happening, even though I knew not a single one of them was logical.
My social anxiety made it hard for me to eat in front of other people. It was hard to write in front of other people, talk to authority figures, make small talk, say “hello” in passing, walk down a hallway, take a sip of water, shift in my seat, the list goes on and on.
It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. It’s so much more than shy.
Like I said, this is just an introduction, I’ll talk more about specific aspects of social anxiety in future posts, as well as how to help someone living with it. In the meantime, the Social Anxiety Institute has a fantastic article that defines and describes social anxiety. It’s the only one I’ve found that actually put what I feel into words.