How Social Anxiety Disorder Can Mentally Cripple Us
How do you feel when you are told to give a presentation or go on a date? Nervous, right? It is perfectly normal to feel that way. But when you feel so nervous that you’d rather cancel the whole thing rather than take a deep breath and meet them — then you may have social anxiety disorder.
All of us have some degree of fear when facing major social interactions — not all of us are like politicians and actors who have made careers in dealing with crowds. So, it is quite natural to have some degree of apprehension when you know a lot of eyes will be on you.
But social anxiety is of another level altogether; it is a crippling feeling of actual fear and tension even for small public activities.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), or Social Phobia, occurs when regular social activities like going out in crowds, meeting people, talking to them about regular stuff, etc. make you so tense that you strongly want to hide in your little den. Social phobia is a form of fear, risen out of an overdose of self-consciousness. This can cause significant damage to your everyday life activities like work, school, etc.
SAD is a real mental health issue. It’s not being “just shy” or “just introvert”. Social anxiety is much more than that and left untreated it can slowly cripple your activities till you are fearful of talking to your relatives and even parents or spouse! However, it is also one of the easiest mental issues to cure, with just a bit of medication and some therapy. We’ll discuss them later.
What Social Anxiety Looks Like
Parents and spouses, heads up! This is something you need to know. If you see these symptoms in your family members, it is time you act or see them slowly rot away from within. Look for these signs:
- Shows signs of tension and/or fear, or is quite negative about:
- Talking to strangers, or little-known people
- Speaking or presenting before a large audience
- Going to gatherings and parties
- Using public toilets (though, to be honest, hygiene may be a bigger issue in this case than mental health)
- Getting out of own den and dealing with outdoor stuff
- Does not like to make eye contact
- Likes to eat alone, away from other people
- Enthusiastically orders stuff online rather than going shopping (tiredness could be an issue here, not certain)
- Heartily dislikes school or work and wants distance education or work from home instead. (Note: though people won’t say it, there are actually a lot of reasons why WFH is not good.)
- Prefers to stay quiet in a group; doesn’t start a conversation on his/her own.
- When forced to talk in a social situation, they talk abnormally fast and stutter (which is quite different from normal stuttering).
- Selective mutism — some patients get completely silent before some specific people or type of people, and they can’t even get one word out.
- Shows signs of tension and/or fear, or is quite negative about:
“Being extremely introvert is one of the biggest signs of social phobia.”
Note that while these are the common external symptoms of social anxiety, they can come from other reasons as well. You should not jump to conclusions. Slow and steady observation and quiet encouragement are key here.
In fact, attacking a patient with social anxiety disorder about their mental condition is the worst thing you can do. That is because a person with social issues feels the safest inside his or her own brain. And if you tell his brain isn’t the best place he thought to be inside — well, that can backfire badly. Tread softly here.
How Social Anxiety Feels Like
So, how does it actually feel to have social anxiety? How does the person at the receiving end feel when they have panic attacks or other bouts of social anxiety? Only someone with firsthand experience can tell you — all symptoms are not seen from outside.
We have talked to people with actual social phobias, and we found that shortness of breath is one of the most common things they experience. It gets harder to breathe normally — indeed, sometimes they even stop breathing unconsciously for a few seconds.
Right on cue as expected, comes dizziness due to the lack of oxygen in the blood (and also due to the panic). The patient feels lightheaded, and it gets harder for them to interpret what’s happening around them.
“My heart was pounding and I stopped breathing…”
Some patients with social anxiety suffer from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), which is basically sudden attacks of diarrhea and gas whenever they feel tense. This is not directly associated with SAD — the IBS can be found for many reasons — but it is fear that it works with. And fear is something the social-phobic guy has plenty of. Not to mention that it being such an embarrassing thing, they get more reasons not to get in such situations. It works in a vicious cycle.
Some of the patients with social anxiety have reported that they feel a mounting feeling of everything closing in from around them. The room starts feeling too crowded, the walls start looking too high, the light seems to get dimmer, and there is too much noise.
The patient gets very wound up and just wants to get out of there, for any excuse. Indeed, they start making up excuses. This is something you can witness frequently in mass interview rounds — there are always a few candidates who drop out on their own after each round.
Panic attacks are common with SAD patients, and they get all the symptoms of it as well when one occurs. Rapid heartbeats, difficulty in breathing, cold sweats, trembling, wanting to scream (or alternatively completely unable to make a sound), etc. are some of the common stuff a person feels when they are having a large dose of social phobia.
These were the symptoms that a person suffering from social anxiety disorder feels when they are threatened (yes, we do use that word, because they feel exactly that) with a high intensity of social situations. However, when they are left alone, the mind of such a patient is not very peaceful either. Here are some of the stuff a social anxiety disorder patient feels when alone:
- Out-of-body experience (who am I, what is my purpose, I don’t belong here, I can see myself, etc.)
- Excessive self-criticism (you probably have nothing worse to tell them that they didn’t tell themselves already)
- Sudden attacks of strong sadness (they cry a lot when nobody’s looking)
- Worrying about imaginary social situations
- Unhappiness and depression
A socially anxious person would be very interested in avenues of escape. They always want to lose themselves in fictional worlds like movies, books, games, etc. Indeed, it has nothing to do with whether they actually like that specific entertainment or not — they would keep having at it just be lost in there.
Curing Social Anxiety
Fortunately, social phobia is one of the most common psychological issues today, and therefore it was easier to research and develop cures for it. Doctors can recommend psychotherapies, medication, or (most commonly) a combination of both of those.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common treatment of social anxiety disorder and is very effective too. Then there is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which basically deals with understanding the difficulties of life and accepting them as a part of life.
Some social skills training can go well with either of them. For example, if a person has problems talking to strangers, some Customer Care job experience can do them good.
Psychiatrists recommend Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), a kind of antidepressant medicine to combat the social fear in the first phase of treating social anxiety. It often kills two birds with one stone since most SAD patients have depression too.
However, SSRIs should be used cautiously since they have some powerful side effects like sexual problems, headaches, loss of sleep, etc. Therefore they should be only used temporarily to reduce the problem to a less intense level that can be managed by CBT afterward.
Don’t leave your loved ones alone if you see them suffering from social anxiety. Love, understanding, encouragement, and above all, help in getting proper treatment from licensed professionals is the best way of treating social anxiety, not talking down to them and ordering them to be strong.