Social anxiety isn’t just about wanting to avoid people. Sure, we hate public speaking and we avoid meeting strangers at all costs. And yes, we bask in the glory that is canceled plans. But there’s more to it than that.
Anxiety isn’t just feeling awkward around people. It’s about being genuinely fearful in some social situations, and how that fear can quickly escalate into panic. And before you know it, you’re pretty sure your panic attack is having a panic attack.
Take it from someone with years of personal experience, here are seven truths of living with social anxiety:
1. “Easy” things can be very difficult for people with anxiety.
Some people with anxiety have a hard time doing things that people without anxiety take for granted. Things like talking on the phone, being in crowded spaces, making eye contact, or being the center of attention. These seemingly easy things can be triggers for social anxiety. It’s not about being “shy,” anxiety can be debilitating in many surprising ways.
2. Just because you don’t see anxiety, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
That is one of the tricky parts about mental illness — there aren’t always physical symptoms. It’s hard to be patient and understanding of someone else’s illness that we can’t see or understand. Just trust us and acknowledge us when we need support.
3. One of the toughest things about anxiety is how hard we are on ourselves.
We’re toughest on ourselves. I have said things to myself that I would never say to my worst enemy. I’m a nice person, but anxiety makes it so I don’t know how to be nice to myself. I will obsess for days about how nervous I was or stupid things that I said.
4. We worry constantly.
If I’m not worrying, I’m worried about why I’m not worrying. The worry is a constant barrage of worst-case scenarios (“What if the toddler escapes outside and runs into the street while I’m in the bathroom?”) and along with the self-hatred and overanalyzing I discussed above, I’m always exhausted. And my anxiety loves to bug me at 2:30 a.m. when the rest of the world is sleeping. Because of course.
5. Sometimes anxiety affects our bodies as much as it affects our minds.
When I tell you I am unable to speak in front of large crowds, I mean just that: I am physically unable to do it. My body and voice shake, and I get pale and sweaty. I feel sick to my stomach and genuinely fear for people within vomiting range. Trust us, and know that we’re not exaggerating when we say we can’t do something.
6. We need quiet alone time.
NEED. IT. We are exhausted by interacting with people throughout the day and need alone time to feel like ourselves again. It’s like when your phone battery dies and there’s no life left. We need our own space. It’s nothing personal. We simply can’t function without having that time to recharge.
7. One of the biggest hurdles to treating anxiety is anxiety itself.
Nothing gives me more anxiety than discussing my anxiety with someone else. When I first went to the doctor for anxiety medication, I cried and shook when I talked. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Be patient with people who self-medicate or don’t want to go to the doctor for anxiety. It’s a scary thing for someone who’s already scared of being vulnerable and being in public spaces to try to overcome.
Anxiety can be unpredictable, but for those of us who’ve lived with it a long time, we’ve learned our own boundaries. Through trial and error, we’ve found the situations that make us most uncomfortable. Most of us know what is likely to trigger our anxiety. The best you can do is listen to us, support us, and try your best to be understanding.