I was curious about common definitions of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – a disorder I live with each day. According to all-knowing Google (2017), SAD is “a chronic mental health condition in which social interactions cause irrational anxiety” (para. 1). This comes across as a bit obtuse and vague. If I tell someone I have SAD, do they think I walk into a party and am afraid all the party goers will turn into pink dinosaurs and eat me alive? Because that seems like an irrational anxiety to me. In my world, in my head, my anxieties surrounding social situations are not so easily explained by just labeling them irrational. To me they are very real and very scary. I found a much more accurate description on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2010-2018) website:
“The defining feature of social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation. People with social anxiety disorder may worry about acting or appearing visibly anxious (e.g., blushing, stumbling over words), or being viewed as stupid, awkward or boring. As a result, they often avoid social or performance situations, and when a situation cannot be avoided, they experience significant anxiety and distress” (para. 1).
THAT. That is what I experience every single day when we step foot out of our front door. It’s not irrational anxiety…it is just anxiety. I am not afraid of other people. I am, however, afraid of how other people see me. What if I say the wrong thing? Why are those people whispering…are they talking about me? What if I mispronounce a word? What if I trip over nothing? What if I have an allergic reaction to something I’m eating in public? What if I get in a car accident while someone else is in the car with me? What if I call someone by the wrong name? What if I have an upset stomach and can’t make it to the bathroom in time? What if I run into one of my ex’s friends? What if I run into a wall? What if I drop food down the front of my shirt? What if I’m asked to play a sport and can’t do it? What if I choke on my drink and cough all over the person next to me? What if I fall down the stairs at the Brown Palace? What if I don’t have enough money to pay for my lunch? What if…? What if…? What if…? What if…?
It is exhausting. These thoughts are racing through my head at work, school, social events, big group outings, one-on-one meetings. It never ends. I have found what makes or breaks a social situation for me is the support I receive from those closest to me. I am a firm believer that people don’t know how to support those with mental illness because we are afraid to reach out and tell you exactly what that support might look like.
With that in mind, here are a few “what not to say” tips for anyone who has someone in their life who suffers from debilitating social anxiety.
- Stop worrying so much!
As soon as you start to tell me I’m being irrational or that I am worrying too much, I will become frantically anxious about how anxious I am. It is a vicious cycle and making a big deal out of it helps in no way, shape, or form.
- Just do another shot!
Yes, sometimes alcohol helps to take the edge off, but unlike what some people from my past thought, getting drunk before any social gathering is NOT the way to cope. If anything, it makes anxiety grow as the day/evening/event goes on because now I am worried about all those other things PLUS being completely drunk and talking too loudly, saying even more ridiculous things, or puking all over myself.
- I can’t talk about this again!
If I bring it up multiple times, it’s because it is my life and sanity on the line. It is meaningful to me. I know you don’t necessarily understand…and that’s okay! I don’t expectyou to understand. But I need you to be sensitive to this very real disorder that plagues me every day.
- But you know everyone there!
I am just as terrified, if not more terrified, of making mistakes and looking like a fool in front of people I know. Being around friends and family can at times be exhausting. It is not a reflection on you, but rather on me. Don’t get offended if I don’t want to hang out or if I cancel at the last minute. Sometimes I just can’t do it.
- But you had fun last time!
That was last time. It may have been last night, last week, last month, or last year, but it was still last time. Maybe I had an exhausting day today. Maybe my anxiety was extra high because of that project at work, so now I’m already too worn out to face another small or large group of people. If I do well in a social situation once, don’t be disappointed in me if I don’t do well the next time. I hate to suggest you should “lower your expectations,” but sometimes it may be necessary.
- You drive me crazy!
That only makes it worse. I can’t speak for all people with general anxiety or SAD, but I have a very healthy guilt complex that pairs better with my anxieties than a fine red wine pairs with filet mignon. Please don’t guilt trip me. I’m not fragile…I just ask that you be considerate and patient with me. This is very real to me whether you understand it or not.
- I can’t help you!
Oh, but you can. All you need to do is sit down with me, listen to some of my fears, and see what you can do to help. For example, one of my biggest fears is not being able to locate a bathroom in a restaurant, private residence, or larger event venue. I felt like I had a breakthrough in a previous relationship because he realized this was a huge source of anxiety, so all I had to say was, “I need to use the bathroom” and he would point out its location. It’s little things like that that make a huge difference. Even if you don’t understand, figure out how to help put my anxiety at ease so I am better able to navigate a social gathering.
- Can’t you just be normal?!
Listen. This ismy normal. I’m not going to get over this like a common cold. If you can’t accept me and love me for all of me, including this side of me, then I may need to step away from our relationship for my sake and yours – it’s not healthy for either of us.
There are alternative phrases that would work for every single one of those above. Also note that saying the words and meaning the words can make a huge difference.
- What can I do to help you get through this evening?
- Am I introducing you to too many people?
- Are you okay with me leaving to go spend time with that group over there?
- Would you rather stay home? *if the answer is yes, don’t make me feel guilty about it*
Please remember that just because you have never experienced something or don’t understand something, that doesn’t mean it is not a valid struggle for someone else. Keep an open mind. Be patient. Show empathy. We are strong in our own way, whether you see it or not. Help us pull that strength out and make it shine. We can do it alone, but it is so much more difficult.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2010-2018). Understand the Facts: Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understand-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder
Google. (2017, Sept. 11). Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/search?q=Social+anxiety+disorder