When we speak about mental health awareness, we often mention anxiety, but much less of a specific branch – social anxiety. It’s very common, affecting about 8%-13% of the Canadian population, and is often strongly correlated with other conditions such as high sensitivity and depression.
It could be the person checking out in front of you, the person sitting beside you in lecture, or someone you passed by along the sidewalk. Heck, it could even be you (since you’re here)! It’s not just being antisocial and sweating. The symptoms are often covert, as they are typically concealed up by a smile, or a nervous laugh. Overthinking. Every. Single. Interaction. With. Others.
Here’s a (very) non-exhaustive list of instances that typically go unnoticed:
Scrambling to get change in time before it’s the next person in line
Struggling to simply walk down sidewalks alongside people
Feeling dizzy and/or faint in crowds
Tripping over words when meeting someone else for the first time
Me: choking over spit, coughing, hoping no one will notice
Not going to the bathroom during lecture, or else everyone else will stare – same goes for showing up to lecture late (shudders)
Walking past cars in the pedestrian lane and just feeling those eyeballs. Cringe.
Brain freezing mid-way through conversation (cue awkward silence!), then blurting out something completely random.
Mentally rehearsing your order just to stutter and mess up your words.
Inability to perform a task (e.g. writing, eating) if someone else is looking at you
Intense fear of public washrooms. ‘Nuff said.
Having to mentally list a set of questions to ask others, and while you’re at it – mess that up too. Secret? Ask open-ended questions and allow the other party to tell a story while you listen attentively – something you’re very competent at!
Avoiding certain situations altogether: large social gatherings
Having to mentally prepare yourself hours (sometimes days) in advance for a social event. This may also include getting dressed and ready hours in advance and the inability to do other things; your mind is already at the event, thinking about what could possibly go wrong. Over and over.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – there is a method to this madness:
Spending quality time with others instead of isolating yourself and ruminating over everything. (Even if it’s just half an hour to grab coffee and chat.)
But before all that jazz, there’s a first step to be taken:
Admit it’s there. Tell someone. Write it down. Go release it. Punch a pillow or something (don’t hurt anyone!). If you’re still stuck in denial and ruminating, here’s the harsh truth: it’s not going to get better.
Felt that mental slap and owned it? Let’s proceed onto the next step:
Take action. Yes, physical action. Whether that’s going out of your way to talk to more people, being active, or finding another healthy outlet to release those feelings, just do it. Exercise really does wonders, doesn’t have to be high intensity; make it a lifestyle as opposed to viewing it as a chore or magical cure (yes, hitting up the gym is quite scary too, but only if you make it so).
Set goals that go up in small increments. For instance, start from small, one-to-one interactions to eventually and gradually making your way up to large groups. You don’t have to set a time limit, but if that makes it easier,
Diet plays a huge role as well – limit caffeine intake, greasy foods will only make things worse, as well as excessive amounts of sugar.
Embrace awkwardness. Here’s a fun TED Talk on that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmNqVdxKxOQ
The final step? Patience and perseverance.
There may be good days when the whole weight is lifted off of your shoulders. Other days, it comes back and drags you down to places darker than you’ve ever encountered. Don’t get discouraged. Think of every battle as a way to become more resilient. Bruises are temporary. But regrets and “I should have put myself out there” last forever. You can’t get back time. There is no magic instant cure, only distractions. Turning to alcohol or drugs will work, but it can only temporarily numb the feeling. Don’t go there. It makes progress all the harder.
In the end, you’re the only person who can take the initiative to challenge your own mind and train it to process information differently – after all, the brain is a muscle too! If you have a friend who lets you know about their social anxiety, please understand that it’s not easy for them to admit and took a shitton of courage just to let you in on this secret (and this goes for other conditions as well) – so please, please be there to support them. They will have your back for dear life.
The whole process, in hindsight is a long and sometimes grueling one, but you can overcome it, as long as you are willing to put in the effort. If not, you can learn to embrace it and focus that anticipatory energy in a positive fashion.
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.