I guarantee that if you met me, you wouldn’t guess that I have a social anxiety disorder.
You wouldn’t notice because I smiled, even though I began to sweat the moment I shook your hand. You wouldn’t know how hard I’m focusing on maintaining eye contact, reacting appropriately to whatever you’re saying, nodding and laughing when I’m supposed to. You might think I’m being quiet, but you don’t know that it’s because I’m absolutely terrified of saying the wrong thing, and how my brain is telling me that if I do, it will lead to my entire life crashing down around me.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) tends to manifest in two types of social situations: performance situations and interpersonal interactions. Performance situations can include the things you might expect to cause anxiety, like public speaking—but they could also be using public washrooms, eating or writing in front of other people, even entering a room where everyone else is already sitting down. Interpersonal interactions might also be some things you’d expect of anxiety: talking on the phone, ordering at a restaurant, going to parties—but they can also be meeting new people, inviting other people to do things, and chatting with friends and colleagues. Social anxiety is different for everyone who has it, so one person might only experience debilitating anxiety in one of those two categories, or even just one specific situation. It might mean they avoid bars and big crowds, or it might completely stop them from being able to go to school or work at all.
Maybe now it’s starting to sound like something you’ve seen before, maybe even felt before. That woman at work who always says no to drinks after dinner with the team. That guy at the party who seems like he’s trying too hard to be friendly and funny, but it comes across nervous and off-putting. But there are even more situations where you don’t notice it at all or how hard someone is trying, and you might not understand the ways in which you could be contributing to it.
For me, it’s interpersonal interactions that bring up my social anxiety—or even the lack thereof. When I watch a group of colleagues leave the office for lunch without inviting me, my heart will pound, I’ll start sweating, I get a stomachache, and I have to take deep breaths to calm down. My brain will repeat irrational catastrophes on a loop for the rest of the day. “You weren’t invited, they don’t want you there, you did something wrong, they don’t like you, they’re all talking about you, they don’t want to be your friend, you’ll never be good enough to be friends with them.” Yes, I’m aware that’s my social anxiety talking, but no, I can’t make it shut up. And I can’t stop myself from believing it either.
My therapists over the years advised me not to use avoidance or “safety” behaviours, like leaving early, drinking to make it easier, or not going at all. Even staying quiet is an avoidance behaviour. For some people with SAD, therapy, medications, and other treatments can be life-changing. For me, it’s helped separate these feelings as my social anxiety and not really who I am, and it has helped me to stick it out when I wouldn’t otherwise, but it doesn’t make the feelings go away.
I’m loud, goofy, and opinionated—this used to be who I was all the time, but since the social anxiety has worsened, it’s only who I am when I’m at home, with my partner or my family. I love that version of me, but I can’t find her most of the time anymore, because when I’m out in public, my social anxiety doesn’t let her come out. SAD can be a vicious cycle that strips away your friends and stops you from making new ones. While I’m going on 10 years of doing my best to deal with it, I know that it could be easier if other people were more aware of their impact. If they knew how SAD felt, they would act differently.
But I understand why so many people don’t know about it—there’s a serious lack of education and representation around SAD. The Ontario curriculum, for example, only covers substance abuse and how a balanced lifestyle leads “wellbeing” in its mental health units from grades 1-12. In movies, the few characters we see with SAD promote misconceptions when they’re portrayed as hermits (Joel, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), incapable of success without serious professional help (King George VI, The King’s Speech), or simply something to be laughed at (Napoleon and Deb, Napoleon Dynamite). In reality, the most recent data shows 6% of Canadians reported suffering from SAD at some point in their lives—and that’s from a national survey in 2002, because research around the disorder isn’t prioritized either. With this combined lack of awareness, even the most socially conscious among us are forced to seek external resources in order to learn about SAD.
I wish I could write a catch-all list of tips for how to be more conscious of people with SAD, but just like so many other complex health issues, there isn’t a single solution for everyone. For me, it helps to be invited to social gatherings, to be given event details so I can set expectations, and to have conversations online so I have more time to think. Conversely, for others with SAD, things like social invitations, event details, and online conversations could be more anxiety-inducing than helpful. The best thing you can do is to educate yourself with reliable resources, like Anxiety Canada, which has ample information on the disorder and features first-hand lived experiences from people with SAD. Most importantly, if you know (or think) someone suffers from social anxiety, don’t treat them differently out of pity, superiority, or self-congratulation—learn how to support them because you genuinely want to make others feel safer, more welcome, and less alone.
You still might not notice my social anxiety. You might see me interject with a suggestion in a meeting, or add on to the joke at the lunch table, but you won’t know how hard it was for me. You might even think I’m an extrovert because all you see is a person who is smiling, making eye contact, and laughing loudly. But you won’t notice how hard I’m concentrating on doing all of those things, specifically hoping that you won’t notice. And that’s why I wanted to write this, because you might think you know what social anxiety looks like, but that’s just it. It might not look like anything.
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