• Michael Thompson

Social Anxiety Disorder = Fear In my Experience

Does the Coronavirus have you glad to be at home instead of at the office? Do you feel uncomfortable speaking publicly in front of large groups? Is your preference a good book to a night on the town? Are you nervous about asking someone on a date? You could be shy, introverted, quiet, and/or a homebody, and I feel for you. However, it is unlikely that you are suffering from the mental health condition - Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD for short). SAD is a different beast altogether, an actual mental disorder, and seriously debilitating.

Stay Away I'm Practicing Social Distancing
The Motto of SAD Sufferers, LOL!

Now, I do not want to trivialize another’s issues, but let me give some examples of social anxiety induced fear with which I am familiar. Have you ever went from an ‘A’ to a ‘C’ in a college class just to avoid an oral presentation? Have you ever accepted jail time from a judge rather than engage in group counseling? Do you wake up a night remembering embarrassing moments from grade-school like it was yesterday? When you walk into a room full of strangers, do you have the unfounded fear that they are talking about you?

Sometimes it can be extremely difficult to explain these differences to someone who is ‘just’ shy. Introversion is not uncommon, nor is it a sickness that needs treatment. The differences arise in the detrimental effects that anxiety has on one’s everyday life. Suffering from SAD means you are probably hurting, both personally and professionally, often without friends and family ever being aware.

Often, friends and family lack the knowledge of how enfeebling SAD can be because they do not see it. They are the people in which you have decided to put your faith. You are trusting that they will not embarrass or harm you in any way. They just assume you to be quiet and shy but not sick. Also, it does not always manifest itself in every moment. It is possible to show confidence and control in a situation and still be terrified. I regularly recognize that when I walk into a bar or restaurant, the suspicion that everyone is talking about me is unfounded and irrational. Still, the fear exists even as I try to ignore everyone.

There is treatment but even recognizing a problem does not make it attainable. Usually, counseling is prescribed as the most important part of any treatment of SAD. The irony being, I would rather have an un-anesthetized root canal than discuss my personal problems with a stranger. Accepting jail time rather than attend group counseling was not an exaggeration in my life. Also, there are drugs one could take such as paroxetine and citalopram, and sometimes narcotics such as Xanax and Klonopin for anxiety. However, the problem is that the psychologist/doctor usually has the annoying habit of wanting to discuss why you believe you need them.

Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs often helps. Many will complain that those are unhealthy behaviors but it does not negate the fact that they sometimes help. It is a relief when the self-medication removes you from your comfort zone and temporarily quiets the judgment of the world - even if for only a little while. It is simply much easier to socialize after you have turned off your body’s fight or flight response. The problem with self-medication is that eventually you have to stop, and the fear of what you may have said or done manifests.

Sometimes people do not even know the real you. As I said, I went from an ‘A’ to a ‘C’ in a class by avoiding a presentation. It was not uncommon to pretend that I was less intelligent than I was. I am no genius, but I discovered long ago that people are uncomfortable when you have the answer(s), or worse - when you correct them. As such, I never raised my hand to ask a question in school, not even one time from elementary to the time I earned my Master’s Degree. The teacher would always say, “Ask. If you have a question, chances are someone else has the same question!” My internal reply was, “Not true, all my questions are dumb and everyone will laugh.”

The hardest is the self-aware knowledge that all this fear is completely irrational. For example, in 7th-grade I was thrown out in dodgeball because I slipped in front of a slow, overweight classmate. It should have been an easy win for our side, but I screwed up and everyone laughed at me… IN 1988!. Thirty years later and I am 100% certain that no one but me remembers the incident, but even now, I have to close my eyes, take deep breathes, and tell myself, “No one cares!”

Personal relationships are all but impossible. Dating someone is essentially an exercise in waiting for an individual to betray you. Who would want to be in a relationship with someone like that? The irony, as I type that sentence, is I know such a belief is a completely unfounded, irrational fear that I let seep into my thoughts.

If you think someone, whom you know, might be experiencing SAD, just to let you know, they are very unlikely to say anything. The fact is they may even try to conceal it from you. The last thing your friend or family member will want is to be the subject of conversation, and as such, will be unlikely to confide. They would most assuredly prefer that no one even notice.

The most important thing for Social Anxiety Disorder sufferers to realize is the old, cliché, “You’re not alone.” While you probably lack the same issues I have, I bet they are still slightly similar. Also, you probably hate when people trivialize it as simple shyness that you can just ‘get over.’ As stated earlier, if it is not a problem, then talk to a doctor and get medication. Additionally, there are self-help resources. I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps. I can only provide my experiences in helping you realize that all the fear is irrational. I know it is easier said than done, but it does make life so much easier and enjoyable once you come to terms with your condition.

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