“Are you sure it’s even a real thing?”
“Maybe you’re just shy.”
“Just man up and you’ll be okay.”
These and many more are the questions, suggestions, and comments that those suffering from social anxiety endure nearly anytime their mental illness is brought to light. Being pelted with an endless tirade of ignorance makes coping with this form of anxiety so much more difficult than it has to be.
While the last couple of decades especially has seen an increase in awareness for mental illness, western society is still leaps and bounds away from having consistently widespread knowledge. Before I was exposed to the stories of victims, even I was a skeptic, while now I advocate and vouch at any chance for the sufferers of anxiety, including social.
Many average people lack the experience to put themselves in the shoes of people with this illness. They don’t understand how it can cripple someone’s ability to perform even the most basic task involving human interaction. Furthermore, they don’t understand how it’s an actual problem involving the chemical makeup in the person’s brain, and not just “being an introvert” or “a little nervous.”
I’m sure almost everyone has dealt with feeling out of place or insecure in public from time to time. One person suffering from social anxiety described it to me as feeling that insecurity and discomfort every time they are with people, mixed with an impending sense of doom. Their description of doing the simplest things like walking through a hallway or into a room of people or talking on the phone made the activities sound life threatening. This particular person had tried coping method after coping method with hardly any relief.
So I propose the question to skeptics and cynics alike: is it normal for someone to feel judged and terrified at a near constant rate? Is it healthy to feel sick over going somewhere, or having to talk to an old acquaintance, or ordering food?
In my personal experience, I have never been horrified of ordering a taco or seen answering the phone as an insurmountable feat. But people do, every day. Millions in fact. Social anxiety is the third largest mental illness in the world. So how, with millions of people dealing with this everyday, is there not more attention?
A friend dealing with moderate social anxiety theorized it this way for me when I asked; “the biggest nightmare for people with social anxiety is drawing attention to themselves. You don’t want strangers looking at you because your brain just kind of automatically goes ‘oh, they’re judging you. They’re waiting to see if you’ll mess up.’ So why in the world would anyone with that mindset ever try to campaign for awareness, when the one thing we fear most is people being aware of us?”
This struck a chord for me, as it almost sounded like the victims were constantly being trapped within their own illness. If I were to have cancer and had to battle everyday to keep my body well, sympathy would be exhibited in the highest form. While I one hundred per cent realize the parallels between cancer and anxiety are not perfect, as anxiety usually isn’t terminal, the idea basis is the same. If your body is sick, people acknowledge it and try to help. If your mind is sick, people brush it off as shyness or sadness and tell you to get over it.
Catastrophizing is when someone blows a circumstance extremely out of proportion- tunnel visioning the problem and seeing small issues as major and dreadful problems. This mental state is destructive and paralyzing to live with, and a common symptom of social anxiety. I can’t even imagine always seeing things as the worst scenario and living in fear of this constantly. As a hopeless optimist (almost to an annoying point) always seeing the worst sounds like living with cold water constantly being poured down my back. Irrational fear of basic activities or reasoning to not do something are other very common things people with social anxiety contest with. Public speaking, friendly conversations and being looked at can quickly turn into a three headed monster to those facing anxiety. Psychologists and doctors can offer relief, but not everyone has the luxury of free health care or being in a position where they have access to these services. Online guides to “end anxiety now!” seem like cheap attempts to profit off of suffering, and my heart goes out to anyone trying to find help and having to sort through the terrible findings of the internet. I completely and totally vow to try to help anyone I see fighting any illness like anxiety, because after my research, I feel well versed in the symptoms and just how terrible they can be. I don’t think I would have the mental strength to deal with something as intense as always feeling fraught and uncomfortable in all honesty. That’s why I thoroughly commend and respect all of those living with any anxiety, especially social. Human interaction should not have to be a point of extreme alarm or panic for anyone. Realizing the difficulty level of daily things which people dealing with social anxiety cope with makes me feel incredibly blessed to not have any mental illness. Although I’ve always tried to be especially sensitive to when someone feels out of place or looks uncomfortable, I think my findings in researching for this article make me that much less inept. Social anxiety is a terrible mental illness that vitally needs more awareness and help.