10 feelings social anxiety causes
Written by Kirsikka Kaipainen (9 Jan 2015)
"Everyone feels nervous about presentations, right?"
Over the past year I've talked openly about my social anxiety with many people. Talking about the symptoms actually helps to relieve them and, more importantly, spreads awareness of mental health issues. What often happens is that people say they also feel a bit nervous about speaking in front of people, going to job interviews, et cetera. This is perfectly normal and it's great they acknowledge it, but at the same time they might not fully grasp the intensity of the feelings in social anxiety. It's like comparing a minor headache to a debilitating migraine, or a bruise to a broken leg.
Recently I came across the Social Anxiety Institute's list of top 10 feelings caused by social anxiety. They rang true to me and made me reflect on my own past experiences. Here's a recap of these reflections.
- Self-consciousness. I used to constantly worry what other people were thinking of me, painfully aware of all my actions, however small. If I walked past a group of people on the street and they started laughing, I felt certain they were laughing at me. If I dropped a spoon in a cafeteria or stumbled with my words, I was mortified. Everyone had surely noticed how stupid and clumsy I was, and would definitely remember it for years to come!
- Fear of being the centre of attention. My self-consciousness was ten times worse when I really knew people were paying attention to me! Giving a presentation or even introducing myself in a group summoned the physical symptoms in full force – shaking hands, pounding heart, weakness in legs, lump in throat, and tension in my whole body. My focus was solely on holding myself together, and I couldn't concentrate on what others were saying.
- Uncertainty, hesitation, lack of confidence. I had developed a strong belief in my total worthlessness as a person. Sometimes I felt like a hollow shell of a human being, which tried to mimic others and struggle through life one day at a time. I didn't dare to speak my mind and avoided conflicts at all costs.
- Dread and worry over upcoming events. I wasted a lot of time worrying, playing future social situations in my mind and imagining all possible ways they could go wrong. This mental practice could have been better spent in thinking of the best possible scenarios, but I couldn't see how I could ever succeed socially.
- Depression over perceived failures. Even more time wasted worrying about the past, too! For me, this self-blame was more about things I didn't do – go to parties, speak to people, be more active – than what I did. Still, I also used a fair share of my brainpower in analysing past discussions and my mis-sayings in them.
- Hypersensitive to criticism and evaluation. Even constructive negative feedback was crushing to me. I kind of shut down and could only think "I can never do anything right, he thinks I'm an idiot, I'm not good enough for this". Positive feedback, on the other hand, felt false. "He's only saying it to make me feel good."
- Alienated. I felt like an outsider who couldn't quite understand or learn the ways people interacted with each other. I didn't have the sense of belonging anywhere and it seemed that no one shared the same interests.
- Trapped in a vicious cycle. I couldn't help avoiding people, even though I realized that it only made things worse. Facing my fears was too much to handle and I didn't know how to change, so it was easier to crawl into hiding, which made it all more difficult to come out again.
- Restricted from living a "normal" life. I envied people who could easily waltz into a room and start conversations with anyone. My symptoms and feelings prevented me from living a full life, and the anguish over lost opportunities filled my days and nights.
- Misunderstood by others. People have said I came across as calm, collected, sometimes distant or even brusque. Well, in reality I was quivering inside and vulnerable to harsh words, so I tried to keep my walls up to protect my fragile self. I was ashamed of myself so I never talked about my feelings to anyone. They would think I was crazy. For example, who in their right minds would wait nervously behind their apartment door for the neighbours to pass by, just to avoid saying "hi" to them? I did – and that was just one of the things that felt weird and embarrassing.
It's not fun to be anxious. It's not rational either. But it can be overcome. Nowadays, I can look back to my thoughts, feelings and behaviour patterns, no longer being ashamed of them but with gentle understanding and acceptance. This is what I hope to say to others struggling with social anxiety: You are good and worthy, unique and special. Be less harsh towards yourself.