Remember in school, there were those days when your teacher called you up to the front of the class to give a ten-minute presentation on themes in Shakespeare’s something or other? You had only finished it the night before, and you were positive that there was no way those pointers you’d written down on your index cards would provide your memory with enough fuel to create actual words. For the entire day – nay, the entire week – you couldn’t keep down food because of the stress, and so, at the very moment that you heard your name called, your body shook like a good old-fashioned California tremor.
Throughout those ten minutes you were sure you’d rattled off something about Macbeth (or was it Hamlet?), but your entire brain was buzzing like a news ticker – this just in: Ashlee is a failure, oh my God I have hair all over my face, I am Chewbacca and everyone sees, I can’t feel my hands. Do I still have hands? What do I do with my hands? Everyone is judging me. Luke is in this class and he is looking at my actual face. Why did I wear this shirt?
Now imagine this same sort of feeling when you go to cash-out at your favorite store, or you go out with acquaintances, or you even simply walk out of the door to your house. This is an anxiety disorder. Add in some numbness in your arms and legs, severe shaking, hot flashes, nausea, difficulty breathing and the unshakable feeling that something is wrong, but you don’t quite know what. This is a panic attack or, as I like to call them, heart attacks light.
What I’m pinpointing here, is generalized social anxiety disorder, a pesky demon that wants to control every facet of your social life. It places you under the constant fear of being negatively judged, causing simple pleasures of daily life that many take for granted to become challenging. It’s not that you can’t fight back, it’s that you don’t necessarily know how to or, if you do, how to gather the strength to do so. Like depression (which often stems from an anxiety disorder due to feelings of helplessness and failure), it’s a mental illness that you can’t see. And like depression, it results in a lot of well-meaning but ill-advised comments from others who don’t understand.
Here’s how a typical day might go when you have social anxiety disorder: (assuming it doesn’t involve, you know, sitting in the house all day watching Doctor Who reruns on the interwebia because battling Daleks is far safer than facing real, live people whilst running errands…obviously).
Roommate: Hey, Jackie and I are going to a party tonight. Do you want to come?
Social Anxiety Disorder Recluse: Oh…no thanks. Parties aren’t really my thing. (Oh my God, I wish they were).
Roommate: Bummer. I feel like you never want to do anything with me.
SADR: No, I know. I’m sorry. It’s nothing against you, I just get really nervous when I’m around a lot of people.
Roommate: Aw, why?! What are you nervous about?
SADR: I don’t know. I just feel really awkward and I don’t know what to say to other people. They usually just end up thinking I’m weird. (Usually what happens is I say something dumb and it’s on my mind for weeks or months or even years after and I’d rather just save myself the trouble).
Roommate: What! Oh my God, that is not true! You’re so pretty and funny!
SADR: (What! I have a huge nose. Are you insane? I’m horrid.) I’d really just rather stay home today. Thanks for asking.
Roommate: Aw, are you sure?
SADR: (No.) Yeah, I’m sure.
End scene. Conversations like this usually end up in an endless battle with oneself. “I should’ve gone. I know staying cooped up inside everyday isn’t good for my health. It’s just too scary out there. I’m such an idiot. Why do I do this? Why does anyone even associate with me? Everyone must think I’m a hermit freak. I am a hermit freak.”
The mind of a person with this type of anxiety shows no mercy. Each day is filled with criticism and negative assumptions. And they rule that person’s life. These types of people are often those kids in school or at work who don’t talk much. Others mistakenly assume that they think they’re better than everyone else or that they’re anti-social, but this is far from the truth. If anything they want to be involved in social activities, they want to get to know you, but their fears sometimes override their desires.
So who suffers from this disorder? The helpless? The weary? Could be. Maybe. But you might be surprised at how many people you pass everyday, people who appear to be perfectly normal, who are faced with this obstacle. It’s not always obvious and that’s because people still need to live their daily lives, disorder or not. They have to actively fight it and many do quite successfully. They aren’t confined to any certain lifestyle and many obtain careers that may seem almost impossible for a social anxiety sufferer to even consider. Actress Rose Byrne has talked about her panic attacks and the anxiety she’s faced in large crowds, and Adele is also known for having social anxiety disorder. And that doesn’t even begin to top the list of actors, singers, politicians and many other heavily social careers occupied by the anxiety prone.
It’s all more common than you might think, but nobody seems to talk about it. Maybe those of us with it are just too afraid or too ashamed to talk about it. But if more people open up and share their experiences, we can begin to realize that it’s not so uncommon and that we’re not as alone as we may think. It’s an ongoing battle. It’s not something that can be cured. It doesn’t go away. But the inability to be cured is not the inability to be defeated. Anxiety is something you can walk alongside and, instead of allowing it to call you names, you can remind it how it peed its pants that one time in third grade, so it totally has nothing on you.
Get help. Talk to someone. Remember that you have not failed just because you had an off day. Know that the hardest part is often the first step – the build up. And if you yourself don’t suffer from it, be aware that the shy girl in your class isn’t necessarily stuck up, she’s just facing her own demons. Or that Bob in accounting doesn’t have any problem with you, he’s just worried that he’ll say the wrong thing. Remember that they’re fighting. They’re fighting every day. But you know what? They’ll be okay.
You can read more from Ashlee Anno on her blog.
Featured image by Natalie Dee.