social anxiety disorder is an overall fear of social situations; especially of yourself being the centre of attention. Because paranoid negative thoughts are intrusive the person often finds it difficult to interact with people. This is very frustrating as sufferers want to make new friends but their fears of being judged and being disliked hinder their ability to do so.
I arranged to interview a member a Social Anxiety web site about her experience of suffering from SA. She was willing to be interviewed but wished to remain anonymous. I am very grateful to her their contributions. For these purposes let’s call her Jenny.
Jenny was sixteen when she realised that she had a problem with social interaction, but had never felt comfortable with it. “Everyone seemed to hate me”, says Jenny, “and know one ever gave me the chance to get to know them. It was as if they took an instant dislike to me”. When asked why she thought this Jenny continued, “Maybe they took my quietness for arrogance or they thought I was extremely ugly”. “I’m not sure if I am ugly, but, apparently It’s common for people with SA to think they are”.
Jenny was in her early twenties when she finally plucked up the courage to go to the doctors for assessment by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, CBT for short. When asked what she felt to finally know why she had the feelings she had. “It was fantastic to have a label”, she replied. “At least I wasn’t insane, as I thought”.
From my own personal experience I was told my feelings of embarrassment and isolation were simply due to my shyness. Jenny laughed out of recognition with her self when I recollected my situation. “People always told me that my feelings were normal for someone my age but by the age of 17 they hadn’t gone away so I figured they were here to stay”.
When I asked her what was her biggest fear; without hesitation she said “people!”. After a moment she expanded on this rather vague statement by explaining what situations in particular worried her. “I’m scared to walk down the street” [on her own] “especially if someone is walking towards or behind me. I can feel their eyes pushing my eyes towards the ground. Quite often when there are people on the same side of the street I cross over because im scared of walking past them. They may think I smell or judge me in some other negative way”.
In Jenny’s case she has a considerable fear of her neighbours, not so much because of whom they are, but because they are another thing for her to worry about. “Living on my street has become a total nightmare. There is one family who lives across the road from me who I particularly find intimidating. I used to be best friends with the families daughter while I was at school. But for many years I’ve been terrified to talk to them. At least once a day I come within inches of them and have been to scared to even look them in the eye. The other day I bumped into the mother in town but she wouldn’t look at me and I was to scared to say anything to her. They probably, and why should they, think twice about me. But I’m now too scared to even look out of my bedroom window in case one of them is there.
I have heard of people fearing eating in public and of blushing because of SA but other symptoms are common too. Jenny peeked at my questions before I got to them and started replying. “I suffer a lot from nervous sweating. Quite often after walking down the street I have to change my clothes as they are soaking wet. That makes my anxiety even worse because I will be thinking that others will be saying, “Why is she sweating in February? It’s freezing cold!”.
“I have never, until recently, voluntary gone out of the house; especially at night. The reason for that was because I’m scared how people act when they are drunk. They have fewer inhibitions and may start telling me the horrible things they really think about me. It’s only the past eight weeks or so that I’ve been going out at night, and enjoying it. Jenny said the only reason she could do this now was because of treatment she received from her Cognitive Behavioural Therapist.
We have already touched on what Jenny thinks people think of her but what does she think when she walks into a crowded room? “Everyone is watching me and I am scared that I will do something really stupid like faint. I’m also worried that I’ll start to shake and that everyone is thinking I’m really weird. When I sat at the front of the class at school I could feel all these eyes boring into my flesh, which made me, sweat more. My anxiety wasn’t helped by the fact that someone who should have been considerate, my second cousin, actually pointed out the fact that my chair was always wet with sweat after I’d been sitting there. This led to a fear of this happening every time I sat down.
Medication and Therapy
Often medical practitioners suggest a medication and therapy combination to help improve SA sufferers’ negative thoughts. The medication actually suppresses the negative thoughts, while the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy retrains your brain to think in a more rational manner. When asked if she took any medication Jenny said “Nope!”. “I was offered some but was told that the side effects would make me feel more anxious than I already did, so I didn’t really want to put myself through that. Also I didn’t want to be one of those people who can’t cope with life without relying on drugs, that’s one of the reasons I don’t drink”. I respect Jenny’s fears about taking medication but millions of sufferers of depression and phobias are helped increasingly by the combination mentioned above.
“I have a big problem with eye contact. But I am getting better because of CBT”. Jenny is making small steps towards improvement, which is very positive. “I can’t look people in the eyes. It’s that old adage that the eyes are the window into the soul. I’m scared if people look directly into mine they’ll see I’m really the horrible person I think I am”.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was just mentioned above but what did it make Jenny feel? “Even though It’s helped me a little with eye contact it hasn’t really helped with my other thoughts. Basically she” [the therapist] “told me to do things I was scared of. But if you could do that then there wouldn’t be a problem would they?”. “When I can’t do what she tells me she says “well there’s no point you coming here telling me you knew what to do but didn’t! Is there? That’s a waste of my time and yours. My sessions are supposed to last 50 minutes. They normally last about 10 at the most. She doesn’t seem to be interested in me, as a person, just my situation. She just gives out orders which are physically and emotionally impossible to follow and my failure to do so makes me feel worse”.
Like many SA sufferers Jenny suffers in silence, as she fears what her extended family and friends reactions to her condition will be. She bluntly said “none of my friends know about my SA!”. It was as if she was scared even at the thought of it. “They wouldn’t no what it was and so would ridicule it, and me. They’d just say you’re a little shy and I need to meet more people. They don’t want to understand something that they don’t already know about”. I asked if there were to be a highly publicised national campaign about the condition would they be more responsive. “Yes!”, she replied. “Definitely! Then they wouldn’t think it was a made up problem”.
Even though she feels observed while walking normally down the street Jenny can use a public swimming pool where in comparison to her normal attire she is naked. “When I go swimming the thoughts of people judging me seem to not affect me so much”. “But I do hate the coming through the shower bit when you go into the pool. You’re higher up than everyone in the water. It feels as if I’m on stage and they are all down in the audience. I always imagine a voice over the tannoy saying, “ladies and gentlemen please welcome the star of the show” “and everyone laughs at me”.
For people who have had these troubles all there lives school was an extremely traumatic experience. “I hated school, as it was full over overly confident people who seemed to have no reason to be so. Often when I happened to walk into the path of a bully they took the rip out of my slouched posture and on occasion decided to pick on me for a few days. It never lasted long as I didn’t give any reaction to their behaviour. My lack of reaction was mostly out of fear of being ridiculed further. Often they’d make fun of my voice or they’d push me around in lessons. On a few occasions a bully would punch me as hard as they could, which was extremely painful. Because I didn’t even ask them to stop they go bored quickly and left me alone. If it hadn’t been for me not reacting I think I could have been an open target for bullies.
Obviously within a normal conversation there will be silent moments. The reason for this is that there is nothing to say [as an SA sufferer myself I know this deep down], but Jenny describes my feelings exactly. “It feels as if the other person is thinking badly of me”. “As a result of this I feel a lot more confident talking on the phone or the Internet”. “I’ve been told on many occasions that I have an extremely good sense of humour and am really funny. But that doesn’t come out in real life, as I’m not relaxed enough”.
The interview ended with the question as to whether SA had effected her emotional and social development in any way. “Yes most definitely”, concluded Jenny, “I’ve never had a boy friend. The thought scares me, as there are more ways in which relationships can damage you than friendships. I’m not sure if that’s because of my confidence, but I take that to be because I’m repulsive”. Many Social Anxiety sufferers think in similar ways to Jenny. But there is help available. The first hurdle to tackle is to visit your doctor to be assessed. From then on you are not alone. There is no need to suffer in silence.