Feeling like a fish out of water with social anxiety

Do you have a friend or family member who avoids social situations, to the extent that you’ve given up inviting them out? They could be suffering from social anxiety, says Elizabeth O’Neill as it affects one in seven Irish people

WHEN I was six, my parents took my sister, Laura and I to a drafty church hall along the seafront. It was whatever passed for a Billie Barry-style dance class in 1980s Greystones. I loved the Billie Barry stage school children on the Late Late Toy Show. I wanted to be like them, but fear, anxiety and tears had me rooted to the spot, as Laura danced over to the children waiting in their tutus.

I remember my parents cajoling me and I felt their exasperation. I was dealing with double reproof, because dad was off work, having broken his leg doing the hucklebuck at a cousin’s wedding. What I remember most was the push and pull of wanting to evaporate and of desperately wanting to join in. Wanting that one little thing that would make me forget myself. What that was I didn’t know, neither did my parents. It was pattern that repeated for years.

As a child, my shyness was a constant. Shyness is physically painful; it’s a dull ache in your ribcage. At children’s parties, I’d cry. In the first week back at school, I’d cry. Going into RTÉ for the first time, for a live recording of Wanderly Wagon, I bawled. As a flowergirl, I refused to walk up the aisle. The playground was a pattern of allegiances I couldn’t negotiate, but the journey home from school was bearable because my three older brothers were on the same bus. I wanted to be invisible. I’d recede so much I’d feel like a pair of eyes, just watching the world.

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Eventually with time and repeated shedding of my skin, I left the shyness behind me. I hated the label and strived to overcome it. I aligned myself to more outgoing people. In college, alcohol helped, as did the development of a sense of humour. I also learned to appreciate shyness’s qualities — being an observer helps greatly if you want to write about the world.

That is the hope for most shy people, that they will not so much grow out of it, but grow into it. That they can say ‘okay, I’m quiet, but I’m going to sit here and enjoy myself anyway’. However, for many people it becomes a disorder.

A few weeks ago, after I wrote about being an introvert, many colleagues and friends confided in me that they, too, were introverts. I had thought we were outnumbered two to one. I had written that introversion differed from shyness. However, one friend emailed to say she was not only introverted, but also had undertaken a 14-week cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course to overcome social anxiety.

She said: “It comes from the introversion thing and there are some social situations where I’m in my head — where I have the conversation with the person in my head and then realise I haven’t spoken for ages, and then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and I get anxious and self-conscious,” she says. Social anxiety affects 13.7% of the Irish population.

Odhran McCarthy is a clinical psychologist with the Mater Hospital, in Dublin. He is also the founder of Social Anxiety Ireland. He defines it as shyness becoming a pathology, as the person fears judgement. There can be a huge, self-imposed demand to be perfect. It can be linked to temperament and a propensity towards anxiety, or it can come from environmental factors.

Odhran says it is often an environmental trigger, from incidences of bullying, humiliation or ridicule. “Some people will say ‘I was born mortified’, some people can’t remember when it started, and, for others, they can pinpoint a very specific incident,” he says.

Odhran gave the example of one man who attended the workshop. On his first day in a new job, he was chatting to colleagues and told a joke that was met with silence. He had considered himself outgoing and confident, but from that seemingly innocuous lunch onwards, anxiety started to build.

To explain the difference between someone who is shy and someone who is socially anxious, Odhran says “the word is continuum, where you start to avoid situations.” Commonly, social anxiety will revolve around work presentations or small talk with colleagues or nights-out. However, it takes hundreds of forms, from fear of public speaking, to eating, to ordering in bars, to singing, to talking on the phone, to playing sport in front of people. It can simply be triggered by a fear of blushing. Most people will identify with some level of discomfort in some of those situations.

The thought of singing in public has the power to render me into my six-year-old self. Once, during bridesmaid’s duties, I was on stage with the other bridesmaids, because the wedding band was big on audience participation. The song was ‘Mustang Sally’, and I froze and refused to participate. That song still makes me nauseous.

The tipping point seems to be the extremity. Odhran says: “take the eating in public, it’s not just the chitchat, there will be many scenarios within that, from knowing what to order on the menu, how to deal with how the food is put in front of you, some people are afraid of spilling it, they’ll be very careful what they order.”

In the workshops, cognitive behavioural therapy is used to break the cycle of negative thoughts, behaviour patterns and triggers. Often, people will use avoidance to overcome the situation, by not making eye contact, fiddling with their hair or asking many questions.

The biggest problem with social anxiety is that the person is so busy anticipating the conversation that they miss the flow and seem more remote.

In a workshop, my friend was asked to draw a picture of what social anxiety looked like. “I drew a bar with bar stools and one was empty, but that was the one I’m sitting on. You feel invisible, because you’re there, but you’re not saying anything.” To me, this is amazing, because she is one of the most interesting people I know.

During the workshops, people are encouraged to practise being in the present. They are also asked to keep diaries to record pleasant social exchanges, and to use language that is positive. The idea is to keep the anxiety at bay and to focus on what the other person is saying. “If you actually focus on the other person and listen to what they are saying, things will just crop up when you’re not demanding that they do,” says Odhran.

Towards the end of the course, attendees must face their biggest fears in front of the group. I suggest this may be very difficult for some people. Odhran says that in all his years of running the workshop, no-one has ever regretted doing it.

Does it work? Odhran says one third of attendees will overcome their social anxiety and, conversely, will be disappointed with their renewed social experience, due to their previously overblown perception of other people’s social perfection. One third will overcome much of it and will be encouraged to attend a support group, and one third will make little progress.

My friend says attending the workshops helped her, but getting older was a bonus, as now she’s not so hard on herself if she declines an invitation.

For more information, go to www.socialanxietyireland.com

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