It is common to hear of people who experience some kind of anxiety in social situations.
However, when this social anxiety is intense, overwhelming, starts to persistently interfere with your day-to-day life and keeps you from participating in life the way you want to, this may indicate that you are suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder.
Of course, only a professional can diagnose you with this disorder, but if you recognise some of the symptoms in yourself, it may be worth raising your concerns with your GP.
So what are the symptoms?
According to the NHS website, you may be experiencing Social Anxiety Disorder if you:
- dread everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping
- avoid or worry a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company and parties
- always worry about doing something you think is embarrassing, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent
- find it difficult to do things when others are watching – you may feel like you’re being watched and judged all the time
- fear criticism, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
- often have symptoms such as feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
- have panic attacks, where you have an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, usually only for a few minutes
So now we know what the symptoms are, but what is it like to live with Social Anxiety Disorder?
I’ve enlisted the help of my friend Tanja, who lives with Social Anxiety Disorder, to give us a better picture of what it’s really like.
1. Hello Tanja! Thank you for agreeing to this interview about Social Anxiety Disorder. Please go ahead and introduce yourself.
My name is Tanja, I’m 26 years old and live a 20-minute train ride outside of Vienna, Austria. I live alone, except for my cat and a few Argentinian wood roaches. My current job is as a supply assistant in a nearby hospital.
2. When did you first experience symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder? What were your first symptoms?
In retrospective, my symptoms started as early as Kindergarten, when I rather spent the whole day reading books than playing with the other children. Back then it was just labelled as shy or introverted. In primary school, I experienced my first severe anxiety, especially when we had to do group projects or reading aloud in class. It was about that time that I had to visit a psychologist. That didn’t help much as they just told me to join a club or society to interact more with other children in our community. I ended up joining the scouts and that was it, no further therapy or discussions about anxiety or its symptoms. My first panic attack came years later. While I always had problems with phone calls, even if it were people I know, I managed somehow. Until one day I couldn’t do it. I was pacing, my hands were shaking and I thought I couldn’t breathe anymore. It was back then when I decided that this wasn’t ‘normal’.
3. When did you receive your diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder? (Talk us through the process of receiving your diagnosis)
Of course, my diagnosis came another few years later. When suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder, you can’t simply go to a doctor, after all. When I was about 13 or 14, I started reading about injuries or illnesses affecting the brain, like various mental illnesses or autism. I also stumbled upon a documentary about a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome and I felt I could connect to that person more than to everyone I’ve ever met before. So I began thinking about whether I could have Asperger’s. Another visit to a psychologist later (during this time I got a lot of support from my grandmother, she organised everything, and I am really grateful for that) and it turns out that I don’t have Asperger’s but it might be a severe anxiety disorder. During this time, and this might sound a bit silly or nerdy, I watched an episode of Star Trek in which a character has an anxiety disorder and all I could think about was: This is me! It was weird seeing a mental illness portrayed on TV at this time, especially when said character is played sympathetically. So I ended up informing myself about anxiety disorders, especially social anxiety. Nearly all of the symptoms fit, so another trip to a psychiatrist/psychologist who specialised in mental health in children and I finally got my diagnosis.
4. How did receiving a diagnosis affect you?
At first, processing everything was a bit overwhelming. Although I have read a lot about this illness, it’s somewhat difficult for you to come to terms with it. But I finally got an explanation for why I am like this. After being bullied and called weird for all my life, I could finally say not everything was my fault. And although my diagnosis happened years ago, I still sometimes worry that there was a mistake, or I’m not sure about how to act. Should I tell people about this? Should I remain silent? Did the diagnosis really change my life? I sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if I didn’t get diagnosed, and most of the times I end up thinking that it helped me understand myself and my mind a bit better.
5. What are the top 3 myths surrounding Social Anxiety Disorder that you would like to set straight?
Oh, there are so many! I think the most important of all is that you can’t ‘simply get over it’. It is an illness, after all. So many people seem to think that an anxiety disorder is just being nervous/shy or compare it to an avoidable phobia (it’s still called Sozialphobie in German and I really don’t like that expression). I don’t want to belittle phobias, but in my experience anxiety acts like multiple phobias happening at once.
Another big myth is that people with SAD hate others. Humans are social animals, we need interpersonal contact. Social anxiety tries to take that basic need from you, it’s not about being anti-social or misanthropic. So many people tell me to be more friendly or to get out more. Or, I have been told that I don’t have feelings just because I don’t show them. It’s difficult to be open in a hostile environment like this.
And one of the biggest myths regarding most mental health problems: It’s all in your mind. That’s just not true. Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder include: shaking hands, fiddling, sweating, stuttering, feeling sick, feeling dizzy, headaches, stomach aches, dyspnoea, quickened pulse rate,… It’s a mental illness with physical symptoms.
6. How does Social Anxiety Disorder affect your day-to-day life?
There are days I almost function like a normal human being. Those are rather rare. As mentioned above, I work in a hospital and as you can imagine, there are many people around. Sometimes it’s getting overwhelming, a lot of noise, people running around, stress due to having to hurry up doing your tasks – these are all triggers and I’ll be honest, if I was alone I wouldn’t be able to cope (shout-out to my amazing colleague who even answers the phone most of the time). While I enjoy my job it’s not an easy one on days I’m stressed. Then I have problems greeting people or giving coherent answers to any question, I don’t eat as much as I usually do. It’s getting worse when I have to go to university afterwards. Public transport is one of the most abhorrent things when living with social anxiety and I often walk after I arrived in Vienna. Speaking of uni: My grades are much worse than they would be without SAD, oral exams are nearly always catastrophic and if a written exam is in a big lecture hall, I get nervous with all the people around.
Other than that: I feel awkward most of the time, don’t like pictures being taken of me, have fewer friends than the average human because it’s difficult to build up trust, and I can’t stand being watched or people looming over me.
It’s a bit risky to add something positive about an illness or disease but I also think I can assess risks better than most people, anxiety gives you a need for self-preservation and fear itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not afraid of the dark because it offers more opportunities to hide, I don’t have a fear of spiders because humans are often much more dangerous (at least in Europe) and so on.
7. Have you accessed any therapy or treatment (including medication) for Social Anxiety Disorder? (If yes, please explain a little about it. If no, was that by choice, or were support services unavailable to you?)
I haven’t had any treatment as of now. As I live in Austria, there’s still a lot of stigma around mental health and therapy is hard to come by. It’s often just being put on a waiting list for years. As I don’t have anyone I can trust enough to help me with organising and making a doctor’s appointment it’s getting even more difficult. But I try to work on it and getting additional help will be a big step forward.
8. If you could give one piece of advice to someone else who has Social Anxiety Disorder, what would you say?
First of all: You are not alone out there. There are people who experience the same things and you don’t need to go outside to reach out. For me, Twitter was a way to talk to strangers about my illness and, while it is in no way a substitute for professional treatment, it helps to talk to someone with similar experiences.
Stay who you are, don’t change because people expect you to. Random people on the street aren’t laughing about you and even if they are, that’s not your problem but theirs. You’re not a bad person just because you don’t like parties or prefer books, computer games, etc. to interacting with people.
If there’s anything to distract you or take your mind off things, do it. If others think you’re weird, embrace it. And don’t forget that most people don’t fight their own minds on a daily basis, you’re a strong person for doing so and every day you try, it is another victory against your illness.
9. Is there anything else you would like people to know about Social Anxiety Disorder?
If you’re someone who knows anyone suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder, try to understand the troubles they go through. You probably won’t but it really helps to have someone to trust. If there’s any way to make life easier for them, for example, if they have trouble presenting something in a meeting or similar situations, don’t force them. Not everyone likes talking in front of people. Don’t try to get them to go to a party if they don’t want to. Avoid putting them in stressful situations and don’t mock anyone because he or she can’t answer a phone or talk to strangers. If at work, it often helps to reduce noise, like turning off the radio. But most importantly, talk to them if they’re ready to do so. Everyone is different, and most people know what’s good for their own health. Let them explain to you what others can do to help.
A massive thank you to Tanja for sharing her experiences. You can find Tanja on Twitter by clicking here.
Do you have any experience with Social Anxiety Disorder? Maybe you have some advice to share on how you cope with it? Let me know in the comments.