Imagine that you’re an unopened orange, sitting in a basket on the kitchen counter. You’ve been there for a while, but you’re not complaining. It feels familiar. Comfortable.
Then, suddenly, you’re picked up and your outer skin is peeled off. It doesn’t hurt, but you feel exposed. There’s no more outer layer to protect you from the unknown, and now you feel on edge at all times.
That’s what it feels like to be in public while having social anxiety. At least, that’s the case for me.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety can often be mistaken for shyness or even coldness, but it’s much deeper than that. Rather than a personality trait, it’s a disorder where you’re constantly on edge and overly alert in unfamiliar places. Just the thought of having to interact with unfamiliar people makes you scared, even when the setting is casual or fun, like a bar or a convention.
To those who don’t suffer from social anxiety, this might sound like a silly non-issue. But social anxiety can be detrimental to your quality of life. Imagine being too afraid to do otherwise simple things, like order your own food at a restaurant or make a quick phone call. Now imagine that fear never going away every time you have to do those things.
Obviously, this means that social anxiety can heavily affect your personal relationships and the ease in which you can do otherwise mundane things in life. Many people can’t even eat in front of other people for fear of being judged and ridiculed.
Where does social anxiety come from?
Sometimes, social anxiety can come from internal factors. If your amygdala, the part of your brain that controls response to fear, is overactive, it can potentially make you more anxious in social situations.
However, social anxiety can also come from your environment, especially as a child or teenager. Abuse and/or bullying can lead to you developing social anxiety. For example, I was a social and smiley child. But I was heavily bullied by classmates for my weight, and it led to me developing intense social anxiety before I was even a teenager. Others might have developed social anxiety as a result of being abused by family.
At its core, social anxiety is a fear of being judged and rejected. So if you were frequently judged and rejected in your past, you might try to avoid doing or saying anything that could potentially have others judge or reject you again.
This can cause you to isolate yourself from others, like classmates or coworkers, which can make them think you’re cold, arrogant, or strange. It then leads to a cruel cycle of others judging you because you’re taking measures to avoid being judged.
How can you deal with social anxiety?
Thankfully, social anxiety can get better. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to see me say that therapy is generally the best way to help ease the disorder. However, I know that not everyone can afford therapy.
Though I think it’s the best way, therapy isn’t the only way to cope with social anxiety. There are techniques you can use to help lessen the anxiety you feel in social situations:
Have something to hold onto. This won’t work for everyone, but personally, I feel more at ease when I have something in my hand that I can feel, squeeze, or fiddle with. I use a soft stone that I take out and put in my hand when I’m feeling anxious, but anything that fits in your palm can work.
Regulate your breathing. Our breathing can become shallow and rapid without us noticing when we’re feeling anxiety. WebMD recommends a breathing technique that helps me feel calmer after I’ve done it a few times.
Get out of your thoughts. You know the saying “it’s all in your head?” Painfully obvious and eye roll-worthy, but it’s true in this case. Focusing on your panicked, negative thoughts doesn’t help. Instead, try preoccupying yourself with something that’s happening outside your mind.
Reassure yourself. If the negative thoughts are particularly strong, combat them with an opposing voice. Are things really as bad as you’re thinking? It helps to remember times when you felt anxiety and still made it out alive.
Even if you’ve lived with social anxiety your whole life, remember that you’re so much more than your disorder. Behind the fear is a great person whom others would be lucky to have in their lives! No matter how used to social anxiety you are, it’s never too late to take the steps to slowly improve it.