What Social Anxiety Feels Like: 'There Isn't Enough Air In The Room'

People with social anxiety share their experiences and coping mechanisms.

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“I liken the experience to being a duck or a swan,” says Helen, 41, who is based in Leicester. “Appearing graceful above but paddling like mad to stay afloat underneath. People often question me when I say I struggle with social anxiety, because of how I appear.”

Social anxiety – defined as experiencing extreme fear or anxiety triggered by social situations – is one of the most common anxiety disorders, according to NICE. Yet it is also largely misunderstood.

Myths surrounding the condition persist, including the idea that sufferers are shy, or simply unsociable. To set the record straight, we talk about the topic in the latest episode of Am I Making You Uncomfortable?, HuffPost UK’s weekly podcast.

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“My ability to make decisions disappears and I can become disorientated.”

- Helen, 41

Helen, who chose not to share her surname, experiences social anxiety before and after events, but rarely experiences symptoms during them. “I come across as confident and together, but instead I am drowning,” she says.

She often experiences panic attacks before events where she can’t control her breathing and heart rate increases. Anxiety about an upcoming event sometimes leads to self-harm.

“My ability to make decisions disappears and I can become disorientated and angry with myself at these times – hence the self harm,” she says. “These periods tend to be followed by self-loathing and large amounts of regret.”

Helen is a primary school teacher and finds her social anxiety is triggered in situations where she has to meet new people, making parents’ evening extremely difficult.

“Situations where I have to speak to people I don’t know, such as servers at restaurants, are also triggering,” she says. “Anytime where I have to communicate with new people in general causes me anxiety – even down to emailing someone I haven’t contacted before.”

After a social occasion, Helen’s anxiety causes her to spend time analysing her interactions with others, while “flashbacks of awkward moments” often lead to sleepless nights.

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Sophie Nightingale, 26 and based in Leeds, says social anxiety “feels like there isn’t enough air in the room”.

“It’s like you’re sat on the edge looking in, with everyone thinking you’re out of place,” she says. “I start to crave fresh air, space and silence while also having an overwhelming feeling that I’m just not a nice person and that I don’t fit in.”

Sophie has only recognised her anxiety for what it is this year, after reading more about the condition and hearing others share their experiences. “I just used to think I got this weird feeling sometimes and that I didn’t fit in,” she explains.

Her social anxiety is most frequently triggered when she’s in social situations with people she doesn’t know particularly well – such as a friend’s birthday party – where she feels “a pressure to perform [and] to be liked”.

“My stomach cramps and I can’t eat or drink, which adds to the worry of what other people there might think of me,” she says. “I start to question, why am I not more funny? Why don’t I look like them? How can they make conversation so easily?”

“There’s a sensation of things moving very quickly.”

- Marcus, 41

For Marcus Reeves, 41 and based in south London, social anxiety manifests itself by making him become “fixated” on the situation that he “can’t escape”.

“There’s a sensation of things moving very quickly and being in your head rather than present in your body,” he says. “If I feel challenged I can quickly get quite tearful which then makes me feel even more self-conscious.

“There’s a sense of wanting to flee, go home and shut out the world, but if you follow that path there’s a very real feeling of being left out and shame for letting people down.”

Marcus recognised his social anxiety a few years ago, when he noticed he’d been having an increasing urge to cancel plans last minute.

“A friend asked why I didn’t want to go to an event and I said ‘I guess I’m just worried that I don’t know who’ll be there’ and I realised that was an element of feeling out of control of the situation,” he says. “I had stopped drinking and realised that like many people I’d been using alcohol to deal with challenging situations since my teenage years.”

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Now, he finds his anxiety is triggered by groups of people, crowds and places with loud music.

“Ironically up until the pandemic I was working as a performer, which seems contradictory to having social anxiety,” he adds. “But the processes of performances are usually quite structured and although it’s a medium that’s sometimes unpredictable, there is at least the illusion of control.”

Everyone will have different coping mechanisms for dealing with social anxiety. Sophie has found that the only tactic that reduces her symptoms is going outside for some fresh air by herself, or with a close friend who she trusts to help her control her breathing.

Helen takes medication for her anxiety and engages in therapy with a psychotherapist. She also finds the ‘SOS meditation’ sessions on the Headspace app useful when panic feels imminent.

“But what helps most of all is talking to my friends and realising the anxiety I feel is quite often similar to that experienced by others but it just manifests itself differently,” she says. “It helps having a group of friends who I can dissect events with and also laugh at any of my socially awkward moments that would otherwise keep me awake at night.”

Marcus tends to wear headphones so he can listen to upbeat music or podcasts as a distraction in crowded places. He also previously did a course of cognitive behavioural therapy, which he says helped “a great deal”.

“It can help you at least understand what’s going on and work towards minimising the thoughts that can trap you,” he says. “I’ve had to accept that some situations are not enjoyable for me, but reframing can sometimes help. ”

If you think you may be experiencing social anxiety, speak to your GP who can direct you to the treatment and support available.

Useful websites and helplines

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).

CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.