Have you ever thought about what it would be like to go out in public with an invisible hand around your throat, a dramatically increased heart rate and a fear that even the shortest conversation will be a Herculean task?
No? Must be nice. Unfortunately, for someone with social anxiety, most events are spent feeling that way.
Defining social anxiety as just a fear of being awkward doesn't even come close to how I feel around others. While I am worried about awkward situations, my social anxiety goes deeper than that.
Oftentimes, the presence of others means I start to fear having a panic attack. We're talking about immense stress over something plenty of people seem perfectly equipped to handle -- plenty of people except me, it seems.
Want to test the whirlwind? I invite you to take a quick walk with me through some of the completely irrational thoughts flooding my mind when social anxiety kicks in.
1. I'm just going to embarrass myself if I go out.
No matter what the occasion or who I'm going to be with, I become convinced I'll say or do something stupid enough to not be invited out ever again.
2. I don't know enough people here. Time to go!
I have a group of “safe” people and without their presence, any social or public setting feels much harder to handle. This is further complicated by the fact that my number of safe people is like, three.
3. I can't join a conversation that started without me -- everyone will think I'm annoying.
I want to try to socialize with people I work with or people at a party, but I feel so worried about being rejected if I try to join a circle of conversation, I end up just staring at it while my brain argues with itself about the risk.
4. I can't breathe. Do they know I can't breathe?
Even if I manage to walk up to someone new, or people kindly introduces themselves to me, it feels as though my lungs suddenly closed for the evening.
My shortness of breath not only makes it harder to speak, but just adds to the list of items I'm already worrying about. It makes me feel terrible I act so weird around such normal people.
5. Why are there so many people in this room?
As a room becomes more crowded, I feel more ready to bolt. And while for most people, one person added or subtracted from a room doesn't make a difference, that one person tends to determine whether I can stick around or need to leave immediately to go find some air.
6. I'm drowning.
I feel so overwhelmed by what's going on around me it's like I'm sinking under a current of panic. I literally sometimes see a mental image of myself fighting to keep my head above water in the middle of a dark, choppy sea.
7. I look weird. Everyone thinks I look weird.
An overwhelming wave of self-conscious thoughts about my face, hair and clothes wash over me even though I just went to the bathroom five minutes ago to make sure I still look semi-put together.
I think, "What if I turned my head a certain way and it caused a section of hair to fall over the wrong side of my part and I can't feel it, but this person talking to me can see it?”
8. I just want to be alone for a week now.
Even if I don't truly want to be alone for a week, in the moments when my social anxiety kicks in, a week without human contact sounds more luxurious than a champagne bubble bath overlooking a beach.
9. Did they see me? I hope they didn't see me.
Whether I'm walking down the hall at work or spotting an old acquaintance at Chipotle, I just hope they don't see me because then I will be expected to talk to them and what am I supposed to say to them?
10. How do other people do this?
While this seems like a silly question, I often wonder how other people walk into a social setting without feeling or thinking anything completely irrational. What is their secret? How do I obtain this mystical feeling of “calm?"
11. What if someone is watching me and I don't even know it?
This tends to cross my mind whenever I'm in a large room. There's so much space and someone could be all the way across the room observing me. It's just borderline terrifying for me to think someone might watch me and think what I'm doing is weird.
12. I want that food, but I don't want to make that phone call.
Yes, seriously, as much as I love food, calling a restaurant for a take-out order guarantees sweaty palms, shaky hands and an elevated heartbeat every time for reasons I can't even explain.
There's just something about calling a complete stranger and being put on the spot. Plus, I can't ever seem to shake the panic of ordering the wrong thing. Online delivery is my best friend.
13. Are they judging me? They are.
This happens whenever I catch anyone looking at me and they look away, or someone asks a “why” question about me or the minute I meet someone new.
I cannot convince myself that anyone does anything other than judge me when I interact with them.
14. I know better.
This may be the hardest part of social anxiety. I know my fears and worries shouldn't hurt me as much as they do. The room of people I'm trying to walk into didn't meet this evening to judge me, but that's what I can't stop telling myself.
Some days are harder than others when social anxiety presses down on me. The moments when I can shake it off are some of my most triumphant, and the reason I battle every day to get past my anxieties.
I find hope in the fact that I've still managed to slowly grow friendships. If there's one positive thing I've learned from my social anxiety, it's that my insecurities don't define me.