While depression has started to receive attention in recent years, society often ignores the lesser-known social anxiety disorder despite its prevalence and the crippling effects it has on a person’s well-being.
Depression continues to come under the microscope with sufferers increasingly seeking treatment as the stigma steadily reduces. This is a welcome development, of course, demonstrating that society is becoming more aware of mental health. But more needs to be done to highlight social anxiety disorder and to help those suffering from this debilitating illness.
Although social anxiety is linked to depression and other anxiety disorders, it’s important view it in its own right, enabling us to really get to grips with it. I even struggled to find any accurate data on the number of social anxiety disorder sufferers in the UK as it was lumped together with different conditions. A figure of 15 million adults has been reported in the USA (https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder). So this is serious.
But what is social anxiety disorder? Well, the NHS defines it as a ‘long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations’ (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-anxiety/). It seems to be somewhat elusive and many people simply equate it with ‘shyness’. I promise you, however, that having social anxiety disorder is different to being shy, introverted or nervous. It is much more than feeling a little jittery before an interview or having a fear of public speaking. Many people with the condition actually appear outgoing and chatty in public. And it can even hit you when you’re walking down the street.
Social anxiety disorder can best be described as an inner critic that tells you everyone is judging you. It paralyses you. It robs you of your personality. It prevents some people from ever achieving their full potential, condemned to living half a life. It often starts in childhood or young adulthood. For others, it rears its ugly head in later years, seemingly out of nowhere, which can be very disconcerting. In my case, I think it was always there. I can’t remember a time without it.
It has accompanied me from childhood to the not-so-tender age of 31. Most kids have an invisible friend, I had more of an enemy. As a young child, I was labelled as ‘shy’ or ‘quiet’, in an almost endearing way (cue images of little girls draping themselves around their mother’s legs on their first day of school), but looking back now I think it even affected me then. By the end of primary school, I was often tormented by those who found my behaviour strange. That only served to tighten social anxiety disorder’s hold on me. It went from strength to strength.
As a teenager, I was the antithesis of my sister, outgoing and popular with girls and boys alike. Even my fellow classmates made comparisons, going so far as to tell her that ‘she was nothing like her weird sister who never speaks’. Or something to that effect. I was an outcast, a social pariah. I struggled to connect with most people and often felt terrified. I tried my best to make myself invisible. I did a respectable job of it too. At the time, I had no idea what was wrong and felt like a prisoner in my own mind.
Moving away for university assuaged some of my fears and anxieties, as I started to make new friends, gain independence, and even start dating. But social anxiety continued to cast a shadow on my life. It was around that time that I first discovered the effects of alcohol. In the years that followed, I regularly used it as a crutch when talking to people. To feel more at ease. It increased my anxiety levels, however, as I cringed at embarrassing flashbacks or desperately tried to recall the previous night’s events. A vicious cycle.
Romantic relationships and friendships are also very tricky with social anxiety disorder. Getting close to people is no mean feat. Walls? Think mountains. I struggle to be assertive and unhealthy relationships can be par for the course. Meeting parents also brings me out in a cold sweat as my long-suffering boyfriend will tell you. And I often hold back with friends or find it difficult to initiate contact.
My hope for the future is that more will be done to bring this disorder under the spotlight including increased research efforts and public campaigns. I imagine a world where social anxiety sufferers, especially vulnerable children and teenagers, receive the compassion and support they need. Let’s get the conversation started now.
As for me, I’ll keep fighting the good fight. I’ve achieved a hell of a lot in life despite, and even because of, my mental health. And struggling to communicate verbally somehow helped me to develop as a writer, to lose myself completely in the world of words.