Most of us experience social anxiety. But social anxiety disorder can prove debilitating, writes Geraldine Walsh
WAITING for a socially acceptable time to leave, I stand firmly against the wall avoiding the people who were once my classmates.
Coaxed by a friend to go to our college reunion, my introverted side begged me not to go. But there I was, willing to be made invisible and desperate to find the exit. My social anxiety hit a peak after a brief encounter with an old tutor. I made my escape, abandoning my friend in the process.
This social discomfort is normal and almost natural. Many of us are hard-wired to protect ourselves from uncomfortable situations when anxiety can occur. Dr Sinead Lynch, counselling psychologist at Silverlinings.ie, says anxiety is perfectly normal.
“It is our way of protecting ourselves when in danger. The stress response centre in the brain is responsible for alerting the body to fight, flight, or freeze when under threat. However, the nature of our busy lives these days can leave us feeling overwhelmed and when we feel this way, we feel under threat.”
US psychologist Dr Eric Goodman, and the author of Social Courage, says there is a difference between the social anxiety we feel on a day-to-day basis within our hectic lives and that of the disorder that can be debilitating.
“Anxiety or weariness to some degree in interpersonal or performance situations is normal,” he tells Feelgood. “However, social anxiety disorder, which used to be known as having a social phobia, is a clinical term for people whose social anxiety is now interfering with their lives.”
While most of us will experience some level of anxiety during social occasions, one in 10 of us suffers from social anxiety disorder.
“Newer research, on inhibitory learning, shows that once we have a phobia of something, treatment does not undo the neural pathways underlying it. There is no delete button on the human nervous system. What we can do is build and strengthen new neural pathways. The stronger learning inhibits the weaker learning,” he says.
Epidemiological studies suggest that women appear to suffer more. Goodman says women may simply be more open to expressing their anxiety in comparison to men. Within his practice, he has witnessed an even split and wonders if the studies are “accurate or perhaps women are more likely to acknowledge feeling socially anxious than men on epidemiological questionnaires”.
I am not embarrassed to admit to my friend that I left our reunion because of my anxiety. I tell her that I’m OK but couldn’t handle the crowd when she calls to check up on me. I avoid, however, sharing the details of the sweats, the claustrophobia, the panic, and the dizziness, which saw me run for an open, empty space.
Dr Allison Keating, a psychologist at the bWell Clinic, highlights the exact responses my mind and body go through when suffering from anxiety in a crowded room. “For the person experiencing it, it can make their world very small and reduce or diminish the quality of their life,” she says.
I’ve lived with social anxiety from my early 20s. It progressively got worse as I retreated and accepted my situation. Have I made my circumstances worse by avoiding occasions that leave me in a cold sweat?
“Some of us are born with a more socially wary temperament than others,” says Goodman. “We can learn to be more socially anxious through direct experiences, such as being bullied or having overly perfectionistic parents. If one’s reaction to socially anxious situations is to avoid them, they become even more fearful of them in the future.”
Social phobia is a condition we should be concerned about, not only for ourselves but also for our children, as its occurrence is on the increase. Social media has contributed significantly to a rise in cases considering we are bombarded by fake life online.
“When we focus outward, rather than inward,” says Lynch, “we can compare ourselves to others. Social media can cause people to feel low about themselves.”
Goodman agrees. “Considering we are exposed to social media daily the constant exposure to carefully crafted posts and pictures depicting other people having blissful, carefree lives does not match up with the internal experience of the viewer,” he says. “People then feel like they are falling short, that something is wrong with them, and that whatever they are doing is not good enough.”
Now in my 30s, I have witnessed, more times than I’d like, how my anxiety has held me back. Taking risks and avoiding pushing past my boundaries, because fear held me tight, has limited opportunities I may have had otherwise.
Social anxiety disorder is of major concern for two reasons, says Keating.
“One reason is the disorder’s very high rate of comorbidity with such other mental health problems as major depression and substance abuse. In comparison with patients diagnosed with other anxiety disorders, patients with social anxiety disorder have higher averages of concurrent anxiety disorders.
“Also, social anxiety disorder can have a devastating effect on young people’s intellectual life and choice of career, causing them to abandon their educations, stay stuck in dead-end jobs, refuse promotions involving travel or relocation, and make similar self-defeating choices because of their fear of classroom participation, job interviews, and other social interactions in educational and workplace settings.”
Overcoming social anxiety disorder is certainly possible. Lynch recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and emotion-focused therapy (EFT) as methods of combating social anxiety.
“CBT helps to challenge negative thinking,” she says. “EFT is also a great therapeutic tool in allowing clients understand deeper rooted emotions that lie behind their anxiety such as shame or fear.”