Art credit: Karina Takayama/M-A Chronicle.
Seemingly less prevalent than the knee-jerk examples of depression and generalized anxiety, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a condition that often goes unnoticed under the vast umbrella of today’s mental health issues. The primary misconception surrounding the disorder lies in that socially anxious people are perceived to be “just shy,” “soft-spoken,” or worse, “mute.”
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) characterizes the disorder as “persistent fear of situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way…that will be embarrassing and humiliating.” NIMH estimates that about 9.1% of all teens experience SAD. Statistically speaking, three people in each of your given classes have the disorder.
Untreated, social anxiety can completely derail a person’s relationships, academic performance, and community involvement. It makes you try irrational things to stem the constant stream of intrusive thoughts. Daily interactions with the world can be completely debilitating for those with SAD, often prompting them to revert to avoidance behaviors to relieve their anxiety. Even the thought of publishing this article (and exposing myself in the process) is wildly anxiety-inducing, so, you’re welcome, readers. Here, I present to you a typical day in the life of a socially anxious 17 year old.
I wake up to my alarm. I get dressed. Today is just a sweatshirt-and-jeans kind of day. For me, most days are sweatshirt-and-jeans kind of days. Anything more extravagant makes me feel shackled to how people might judge my clothing or how I do my makeup, eliciting an onslaught of anxious thoughts to the point that I can’t focus on anything else for the entire school day.
Social anxiety takes “Do I look okay?” to the extreme: it’s like having a loud voice in your head constantly reminding you that people are always watching, judging, and publicly degrading you to others based on things as simple as your sense of style. It sounds silly, but it’s real.
I’m still working on it.
Time to walk to school, because I don’t have a driver’s license, because getting behind the wheel of a car scares the crap out of me. What if I mess up? More importantly, what if people SEE me mess up? What if they laugh at my car, or I go too fast, or I go too slow and the people behind me are running late for something, and then they’ll remember that annoying girl who obviously can’t drive properly and tell everyone they know how their day was ruined by some blonde b*tch? Nuh-uh. Walking is failsafe, AND better for the environment.
I reach the crosswalk at the intersection of Middlefield and Ringwood. God, the traffic is horrendous…. I wonder how many people are looking at me right now. Don’t make eye contact! I wonder if my ponytail looks too messy. Should I put my hair down? I’m gonna put my hair down. Now at least if I trip in the crosswalk or if my backpack is hanging open they won’t know who it is. Lauren, they’re all staring at you; walk faster; you’re holding up traffic. But don’t look rushed!!! Look…normal. Confident! Fake it ‘till you make it right?
My day from there on out is filled with an interspersion of equity cards, presentations, and class discussions.
Although I have yet to meet an individual who truly likes any of these things, the anxiety that most people with SAD experience in classes is far more intense than the standard “nervousness” of most students.
For socially anxious people, even being physically present in the classroom triggers blushing and hyper-awareness of their surroundings. The fear of being called on (even when they know the answer) is often intense enough to induce nausea and vomiting. Tasks as simple as reading a passage in front of the class warrant a trip to the bathroom afterwards so that their peers don’t see them having an anxiety attack.
Presentations result in vertigo, profuse sweating, hyperventilation, hot flashes, heart palpitations, and physical tremors. Personally, speaking up in class discussions drives me to tears. Every move is calculated; the fear that classmates will scrutinize my appearance, my opinion, and my voice constantly lurks in the back of my mind.
With the end of the day comes what is arguably my most difficult class: sixth period Journalism. Sharing my writing on the Internet is a different kind of hurdle I am still learning to clear. Not necessarily harder, or easier, just different. Though my path is not easy, it is mine, and no one with social anxiety has exactly the same one.
If a friend or family member admits to you that they think they have SAD, please treat them like you would normally and do not dismiss their experiences.
For those of you currently battling SAD, know that you are not strange, or broken, or useless, that you are not alone, and that help is available (usually through cognitive and/or group therapy). I share my story to help those of you who do struggle with social anxiety and may not realize it (or perhaps you do realize it, and are just too scared to speak up for yourself).
Regardless of where you are on your path, suffering from SAD does not excuse you from stepping outside your shell and being active in your community, and the sooner you recognize that, the sooner it will get easier to share your voice.