6 Things I Wish People Knew About Living With Social Anxiety Disorder

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Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) has held a tight grip on my life for as long as I can remember. Since I was young, social situations have filled me with a certain dread that pushed me to avoid anxiety-inducing activities like speaking in class or checking out at the store cashier or talking to a teacher because of the immense stress they put on my already-anxious mind.

In spite of this, I have always pushed myself to work to overcome my fears. Some things get easier, but social anxiety still permeates into all areas of my life and leaves me wondering if I’ll ever be able to achieve my career goals, make friends or fulfill lifelong dreams, especially when people tend to write me off as just a shy girl instead of
seeing my potential.

It still seems that very few people are aware of Social Anxiety Disorder and the crippling effect it can have on the lives of those who have it. I believe that SAD is keeping a lot of truly talented people from reaching their full potential and sharing their gifts with the world… or even from just leading a fulfilling, happy life.

Here are some things I wish more people knew about living with Social Anxiety Disorder:

1. We are not just shy. There are people in the world who are more hesitant to talk than others… this is shyness. Those of us with SAD experience physical symptoms of panic when exposed to social situations, leading us to dread and avoid them. This panic makes it difficult to speak to new people, look others in the eye, make conversation, etc. We obsess over saying the wrong thing, offending others, or embarrassing ourselves. SAD can take over your life and make it lonely and miserable.

2. We are more than “the quiet one.” I’ve gotten to know many shy and socially anxious people over the years, and I’ve come to find that they are some of the funniest, most intelligent, thoughtful and talented people. Because we don’t
talk much, people assume we are just meek people with little to say. People are
often shocked to find that behind those downcast eyes and blushing cheeks can
lie spunky spitfires and irreverent comedians. It is frustrating to not be able
to show others the real you because of your social anxiety.

3. We are not trying to be rude. Sometimes people interpret my not making conversation, joining in groups or avoiding eye contact as me being rude or stuck-up. The truth is, I am terrified of offending people, but my social anxiety makes it hard to join or continue conversation because I can’t think of things to say or I’m too afraid to say them.

4. Social situations are very stressful for us, so please have some understanding. I have had people judge me over the years for cancelling on an event at the last minute. I understand their frustration, but imagine the panic and stress you feel in your body right before you go on a first date, give a presentation, do a job interview, or start your first day of work: your pulse raises, stomach churns, body shakes, mind races, and your mouth freezes up. This is what people with SAD often feel when they go to school or a meeting, the store or a lunch date (even with an old friend). Any situation can trigger these feelings of panic. Please be mindful that this might be the reason for someone not showing up for appointment, participating in class, etc.

5. We do have things to say, but it’s hard to get them out. Please be considerate in group settings of those who may have a hard time speaking up, especially if you are voicing strong opinions or making decisions that will affect the entire group.

6. We have a lot of potential. Most work and educational opportunities depend on one’s ability to communicate and the number of connections one has. Obviously, this presents a huge obstacle to those with SAD. I work very hard to keep pushing myself in spite of my disorder, but I still have a naturally quiet demeanor that can lead some employers, audition judges, etc. to dismiss me as a candidate in spite of my qualifications. I hope people will start to focus more on the ideas people share than the volume at which they speak them.

Every person with social anxiety is different and the disorder can affect people in different ways, but hopefully this gives a better idea of what it is like to live with Social Anxiety Disorder. It may seem like a weakness of character fueled by a lack of courage and petty fears, but SAD is a crippling disorder that requires a lot of courage to get through every day living with. All in all, I hope we can all have more understanding and consideration for the battles people we come across each day may be battling, offering compassion, not criticism.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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A PSA About My Anxiety Disorder

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I don’t claim to be an expert when it come to anxiety disorders, let alone know how others living with them feel about this particular unwanted passenger. This is just a little PSA for all the times I’ve resisted the urge to *face palm* in my mind after someone, not always a stranger, has said something just plain insensitive and ignorant about anxiety disorders and those who have to live with them every day.

1. Anxiety isn’t like a pair of shorts, you don’t simply outgrow it as you get older or wear it out with therapy and medication. You just learn to manage it as best you can, with what tools you have. Because you have no other choice but to keep going.

2. You wouldn’t give someone with diabetes grief for managing their condition with insulin, so please stop hassling people about their medication or treatment for anxiety and any other disorders you don’t necessarily understand yourself.

2. Panic attacks aren’t always conveniently dramatic or obvious. So if someone with an anxiety disorder tells you he’s having a panic attack, please be a decent human being and take him seriously — it’s not hard.

3. Self-care is not a case of being selfish, weak, sensitive or flaky (yes, people actually say things like that). It’s about remaining in one piece at the end of the week so one can do it all again on Monday.

4. Don’t project your idea of what a “real stressor” is onto others. What may seem like nothing to you, may mean a panic attack or trouble breathing for others. This could be anything from making a phone call, driving or answering the door.

5. Most of the time I’m pretending to be OK with everything going on, sometimes I slip up on my routine. Just give me a chance to recollect my thoughts.

6. Like many people I have social anxiety disorder, and as a result, I don’t go to crowded events. Sometimes I can be present in body but too tense and unwillingly consumed by all the thoughts racing through my head to enjoy the moment like someone without anxiety would. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, your event or even me as a person. It’s my anxiety.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The 2 Questions I Ask Myself When I Can’t Control My Worrying

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I’m a naturally anxious person. I like things done a certain way; change is hard for me; I do not like the unknown. This isn’t a new development – I was an anxious kid too, but what is a semi-new development is how I am handling this anxiety.

Spoiler alert – it’s not always great.

For example, I was feeling particularly anxious about something the other day and somewhat ironically, happened to have a midwife’s appointment scheduled. After the nurse called me back into the room, she asked me the usual innocuous questions and then unvelcro-ed her blood pressure cuff.

“What is your blood pressure normally like?”
“Oh yeah. It’s sort of low. I’m usually around 110/70.”
“Well, it’s not low today. You’re up around 140. Can you take a deep breath?”

So I took a deep breath – and my blood pressure stabilized.

At first glance, this episode didn’t provide me with any great insight, but during a conversation with my brother later that night I realized something – things I worry about, things that aren’t even actually happening, are affecting how my body functions right now, in a very real way.

Like the time I laid awake in the middle of the night with heart palpitations because I was worried I was going to be worrying about something that might happen during Oliver’s birthday party.

Or the time I worried myself sick all during our annual Christmas lights pilgrimage because I thought I might have to start my clinical fellowship over if some paperwork had not been filed appropriately.

Those benign moments were tainted because I was so focused on the “what-ifs” of the future. What-ifs I had absolutely no control over – no matter how much or how hard I thought about them. Now granted, I have made great strides with my anxiety (and right now you’re thinking, “These are great strides? What is she smoking? And also, how can I get some?”). But there was a time when these kinds of triggers would absolutely cripple me to the point of not being able to function. I have moved through that time, and for that I am extremely grateful. I have moved through to a place where I can recognize there will be things in my life that are going happen, and they are going to be out of my control. I can choose to perseverate on these things until they drive me crazy or I can recognize them as a stressor and tell them to get the F out of my way.

These days, I try to ask myself two questions:

  1. Is this useful? Because there is a “useful” kind of worrying. You might worry about your tires on your car being low. So you realize you should stop at the gas station and fill them up. Problem solved. What you shouldn’t (and I sometimes tend to) do, is replay how you are going to get to the gas station step-by-step, mentally tackling potential obstacle along the way – over and over. What if the pump is broken? What if I don’t have enough quarters? What if it’s not just that I’m low on air and something is really wrong with my tire? This is not a useful line of thinking. If I get to this point, I know I have gone too far.
  2. Can I do anything to change this? If the answer is yes, refer to #1, create an action plan and move on. If the answer is no, I have to let it go. (I don’t have daughters, so I will not be making the expected “Frozen” reference here.)

It’s a pretty simple two-step process that more often than not, I mess up in some way; however, when I get it right – it yields powerful results. Results that don’t cause a nurse to tell you the calm the heck down when you’re sitting in her office for a routine appointment.

It’s been a long and winding road (as The Beatles say) to get to this point. Of course, there are still times when I think I have everything under control, only to find out I am about to step off a cliff; but I’ve found that those cliffs are starting to become far less arduous and much easier to navigate around. I’m certainly not in a place where I feel like I’ve got this whole game of life figured out and I don’t worry at all any more, but I am in a place when I can see some of my worrying for what it is: useless.

**Points #1 and #2 were gleaned from Dan Harris’ “10% Happier” and Alan and Nikki Lawrence of “That Dad Blog.” Check them out!

Editor’s note: Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way. This is one individual’s experience.

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To the Student Who Insists You’re Not ‘That Stressed’

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It’s currently the week before finals. I have two papers to write and three finals to prepare for over the next five days. But this shouldn’t be a problem, right? I should be used to it by now. Besides, hundreds of thousands of college kids around the world are probably facing the same things I am.

Right?

In the past year, I had progressively experienced worse and worse symptoms of anxiety both from sleep anxiety and personal stresses. I have become somewhat of an insomniac on many nights. I didn’t think much of it during the first six months or so, and I didn’t think I would possibly need any medical attention. But that was almost a year ago.

wrist with hospital band

Last night, I recklessly self-diagnosed myself as having a stroke. I asked my roommates to rush me to the emergency room. Some of my symptoms included extreme rapid heartbeat, chest pain, nausea and dizziness, difficulty breathing, the constant feeling of needing to faint, numbness in my left arm and uncontrollable crying (and when I say crying, I mean crying). For me, this was all extremely out of the ordinary – these aren’t things that normally happen to me, ever, and for an episode as such to occur forced me to critically reevaluate how serious this matter has become.

In general, I’ve always held the philosophy that out of the 7 billion+ people in this world, I could not be having it nearly as bad as even half of them. Because of this, I’d conditioned myself to believe I do not ever get stressed and had always subsequently dismissed any signs of stress.

Sitting here now after recovering from what turned out to be an anxiety attack, I realize I can’t neglect those feelings anymore. Thus, I am writing this article — not only to update those who care about me but also for the purpose of sharing the following message:

If you’re feeling stressed, don’t be afraid to admit it. Seek your friends and family members when you need to. You might feel at times that you may be burdening them with your own worries when they already have their own, but if they are truly your support system, they will care about what you have to say and will be more than happy to be there for you. You are equally as important as anyone else who walks this planet, and as such, you should take good care of yourself — and that includes your mental wellness. Otherwise, how will you be able to take care of those you care about?

Editor’s note: Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way. This story is based on an individual’s experience. 

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s a question you wish someone asked you about your mental illness? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Perfect Way My Psychologist Explained Anxiety

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Fifteen years ago, my life was a dark, scary place I just could not escape. 

I was paralyzed with fear, could not leave my home, was afraid to be alone. Every day, all day, I thought I was having a heart attack. I was sure of it. I was sweating, dizzy, chest pains, short of breath. After many trips to the emergency room, doctors appointments, stress tests, heart sonograms, I found out my heart was absolutely healthy. My family doctor finally said I was experiencing panic attacks. I had never even heard of a panic attack! She referred me to a psychologist. After spending many hours with the psychologist, I started to learn so much about anxiety, panic attacks and myself! 

I was put on medication for anxiety and depression, and to this day, still take it. Medication helps me manage the anxiety and panic attacks, but learning about myself and why I was experiencing these issues helped me more than anything. My psychologist explained anxiety like this to help me understand it a little better:

Imagine you’re cleaning up around the house because you have company coming soon. You pick up an object and don’t really know where to put it, so you shove it in your closet and shut the door. You just need it out of sight for the moment. Throughout your life, you keep doing this, shoving something in your closet for the moment, intending on taking care of it later when you have more time. Eventually your closet is going to fill up. At one point, you will open the door to try to put one more thing in, but your closet is so full, everything comes falling out at once and you are buried in all the items you’ve been keeping in there. Anxiety is our body and mind’s way of saying, “Hey! This closet is getting pretty full! You better start cleaning soon!” And when we ignore the warning to start cleaning, and our closet is finally full, a panic attack is our body and minds way of saying, “I told you!”   

Needless to say, my closet was exploding! I had a husband who had been out of work due to a back injury and major surgery, two children who needed me and, two days after my husband’s back surgery, our 5-year-old son had a bicycle accident that ended up with him in a coma for a week at a children’s hospital an hour and a half away from the hospital my husband was recovering in. I was being pulled in so many directions, all while trying to be the “rock” that kept our family going. That alone needed a closet the size of bank vault!  

After several sessions, tears, heartache, I started to slowly get better, and was able to manage my anxiety and panic attacks. It has been 15 years, and I still have the anxiety and panic attacks, but 99 percent of the time I can manage them on my own. I learned to look at life differently. For years I held on to anger, pain, disappointment and it was eating away at my soul. I started to realize every bad thing that ever happened, happened for a reason — I just never took the time to try to see it differently. The issues from my adolescent years helped me be a better parent to my children. The issues from my parent’s marriage made me work harder to have a better marriage for myself and my family. The loss of loved ones made me appreciate those I still had in my life even more.

So in a weird way, being diagnosed with severe generalized anxiety made my life better. It made me deal with things I didn’t even know I needed to deal with. It made me see life differently, which in turn made me a better person, parent and wife. It still is hard at times, but it is manageable!  My hope is for anyone suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, talk to your doctor, ask about a psychologist, clean your closet out so that you can start loving life again!

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? If you’ve done this before, tell us about that moment and the child’s reaction. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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How I Define Success as a Person Living With Anxiety

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Success isn’t a word I keep in my personal vocabulary; it seems to be quite contradictory to define what success is when I haven’t made it applicable to my own life.

Success has always revealed itself to me as cliché, stale and ordinary. And it’s because of this view of success that I find statements such as, “Working really hard is what successful people do,” from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” to be extremely off-putting.

Hard work shouldn’t be done solely for success as the purpose; hard work should be done because it reveals a person’s character and work ethic. Success is so much more than a single-minded “hard work” POV. Success can come from some of the worst things in our lives.

In April 2015, my father lost all memory of the first three weeks of that month due to a rare ruptured brain aneurysm. My father had to learn how to properly walk again by getting his strength back and managing his thought process.

Emma Welling

At the same time, I had to learn how to become independent since both of my parents were more than half an hour away in the ICU of a hospital for 21 days. I had to let myself unload the burden of nearly losing a family member, which eventually translated into being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

I know what it’s like to face adversity and feel like there’s no hope. I was half an hour away when I received the phone call that I needed to get to the hospital as fast as possible because my dad was in critical condition with blood pooling in his brain. I know what it’s like to think you aren’t going to make it. I was certain my dad wouldn’t be alive when I finally arrived at the hospital.

And only four weeks after that, I found myself lying on the floor of a classroom experiencing my first ever panic attack. I know what it’s like to feel as if you’ve reached the end. I was certain I was going to die on that classroom floor when nearly an hour had passed by and I still felt the weight of the world on my chest.

It was in the midst of these moments — seeing my dad unconscious in the ER with a drain in his head and panicking in a classroom — that I realized there were things that happen in this world that aren’t in my control.

If success is truly based off of how hard I work at something, I’m afraid I’ll be a failure my whole life. No matter how hard I try, I can’t change how the neurotransmitters release or how the synapses fire in my brain. There’s nothing in my power that will eliminate this disorder; I may very well have anxiety for the rest of my life. However, that doesn’t constitute me as unsuccessful. I consider myself strong and courageous, and I refuse to let those words be only synonymous with success.

Success isn’t one size fits all. As an individual with anxiety, I sometimes feel like I have to prove and justify my success because society views mental illnesses as a disadvantage that demerits success. When I find myself thinking this way, I quickly remind myself that anxiety is a setback only if I view it that way. Success is possible for anyone no matter what his or her situation is.

Personally, my success comes from waking up and taking my first conscious breath of the morning, knowing I have another day to do something with my life. My success comes from making those around me more aware of the truths about mental illnesses and my anxiety disorder. My success comes from making it through an anxious situation or an anxiety attack. My success comes from being who I am and not letting anything hold me back from expressing who I am — even if that means having more anxiety than an average person.

You can spend your whole life trying to create a perfect and burden-free life, but that will never lead to a prosperous and successful one. The only way we grow is through the trying situations in life. I’ve learned more about myself and life since my dad had his near death experience and I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Success is what you want it to be — it’s malleable and changeable. It doesn’t come from hard work or perfect health. It comes from resilience and hope that life will go on. There is no need to try hard or impress others, just simply be and success will follow.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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