“Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal”
Imagine a world- or perhaps a life- wherein every time you are asked to be in a social or performance situation, you experience intense anxiety, or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected; you feel powerless and helpless towards your distress. You want to stop, but cannot- worrying about acting or appearing visibly anxious, or being viewed as stupid, awkward, and boring all the time. So much so, it may just wreck your life; or as professionals put it you may have ‘Social Anxiety Disorder’.
If you have social anxiety disorder, the stress of these situations may become too much to handle. You might avoid all social contact because things that other people consider ‘normal’- like making small talk and eye contact- make you uncomfortable. All aspects of your life, not just the social, could start to fall apart.
As a result, you may often avoid social situations, and when a situation cannot be avoided, you experience significant anxiety. Many people also experience strong physical symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating, and may experience full-blown attacks when confronting a feared situation. Although they recognize that their fear is excessive and unreasonable, they often feel defenceless and vulnerable against it.
Some situations might not cause a problem for you. For example, giving a speech may be easy, but going to a party might be a nightmare; or you could be great at one-on-one conversations but not at stepping into a crowded classroom. All socially anxious people have different reasons for dreading certain situations. But in general, it’s an overwhelming fear of being judged by others in social situations; and they may even collectively start having symptoms and get anxious immediately before an event, or might spend weeks worrying about it. Afterward, they could also spend a lot of time and mental energy worrying about the way they acted.
Affecting approximately 26 million Indian adults, Social Anxiety Disorder is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobia. The average age of onset is during the teenage years; although individuals diagnosed commonly report extreme shyness in childhood, it is important to understand that this disorder does not simply equate with shyness.
There’s no one specific reason that causes Social Anxiety Disorder. Genetics likely have something to do with it: if you have a family member with social phobia; or having an overactive amygdala- the part of the brain that controls your fear response; or can be linked to a history of abuse, bullying, or teasing; or having overbearing and controlling parents. Developing a health condition that draws attention to your appearance or voice could trigger social anxiety too.
This disorder can wreak havoc on the lives of those who suffer from it-from avoiding going out with friends and family to declining job opportunities. Symptoms may be so extreme that they disrupt daily life and can interfere significantly with daily routines, occupational performance, or social life, making it difficult to complete school, interview, get a job, have friendships, or romantic relationships. People with social anxiety disorder are also at an increased risk for developing a major depressive disorder and/or substance use disorders.
Despite the availability of effective treatments, fewer than 5% of people with the disorder seek treatment in the year following initial onset, and more than a third of people report symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.
One of the biggest problems concerning mental illness is the lack of guidance. Unlike a physical condition, there aren’t any clear instructions to guarantee recovery. Doctors can only make suggestions, and so, the responsibility for care mainly falls on the nearest and dearest.
As a third party surrounded with people, it is important to understand not everyone is vocal about their condition, and not everyone really knows what’s up with them. You can only do a little of your part to avoid making anyone around you feel uncomfortable, more anxious, or worse about themselves.
The key thing to remember is that anxiety is not a rational disorder. Therefore, a rational response will most likely not help, especially during a moment of distress. Instead, try to work with their emotion, and accept that they feel anxious. Focus on their ‘feeling’ and not their ‘reason’. Be patient, and try not to lose your temper or snap at the person.
To feel ‘okay’ is the bare minimum to feel ‘healthy’ for humankind, and to contribute in the core development of such a strong emotion is the bare minimum for an individual. See around yourself, you never know who really needs to be seen.