Few understand the depths of social anxiety. In simple terms, it’s fear with a capital “F.”
It’s fear that someone will find out that you can’t do the things that are so natural for everyone else.
The fear of talking to an authority figure.
The fear of participating in a discussion with a member of the popular clique.
The fear that you are being judged by those around you for simply being there.
The fear of being alone with a person you’re attracted to.
The fear that what you have to say doesn’t matter. That it never matters. That it’s always wrong.
If you have social phobia, you don’t want anyone to know. You learn ways to cover it. You avoid. You find excuses. You don’t speak about it with close friends or family.
And, later in life, when you learn to manage it, you still don’t include it in describing your past. It’s something that you want to be kept hidden. It’s that embarrassing.
The impact of social anxiety can be so great that even after seeking treatment and overcoming its major effects, healed wounds can reopen.
Years ago, when I was twenty-five, I won the top sales award for my company. The national sales meeting and awards dinner were at a Florida golf resort.
Dressed in a suit and tie, I sat in my room in a stuffed armchair with my feet propped up on an ottoman. I’d been that way for two hours.
I was supposed to be downstairs in the bar with other sales representatives telling war stories, not staring out the window at the 9th hole.
I skipped the bar not because I didn’t want to mix with the others. It was because of what came after it. The awards dinner and my expected acceptance speech.
I would’ve stood at the podium, plaque in hand, the room on their feet clapping, and I would have frozen. The words stuck in the back of my throat.
I would have been a total embarrassment to myself and to my family if they ever heard about it.
I was sure that most of the other sales reps would have wondered how I ever won the award in the first place. I’d be the brunt of jokes for years. I would never again be viewed as someone deserving of receiving any award.
So I called in sick and stayed in my room.
Such is the twisted world of social anxiety.
Social anxiety disorder is difficult to understand because it can be so pervasive and yet it can be limited and selective.
There is no medical test to detect it. Typically, there’s no family history. In fact, within families, social anxiety can be a learned behavior which confuses researchers looking for a genetic component.
Clinicians think that its most likely cause is environmental. Negative experiences such as childhood trauma, either emotional, physical, or sexual.
Behaviors that you find embarrassing like OCD and speech impediments can foster avoidance tactics that eventually lead to self-isolation and social phobias.
Depression, suicidal thoughts, lack of self-worth and purpose are very common characteristics of someone battling social anxiety.
Today, there are 15 million Americans suffering from social anxiety disorder, which makes it the third most common mental health disorder.
What’s notable is that 36% won’t seek therapy for ten years.
They wait for it to disrupt normal activities like the ability to hold a job or the ability to maintain relationships.
Clinicians claim high rates of success through cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy techniques. Often, medication such as Zoloft or Paxil is prescribed with therapy.
I’m proof that therapies and medications can make a difference.
But I also think that the headlines and claims often advertised on clinician websites over promise the ability to cure.
What’s not often discussed is the lasting impact of retarded social development.
Stunted personal growth results in a poorly developed skill set that makes maneuvering through common social interaction difficult.
Driven by the embedded memories of past embarrassments that continually remind you that it could happen again, the effects can linger for years.
It’s imperative to seek therapy early if you find yourself practicing avoidance in everyday situations when others wouldn’t or developing generalized fears that interrupt daily activities.
My social anxiety was kindled by stuttering that began in second grade and morphed to speech block by third grade, which incited the fear of social interaction. (You can read about it here.)
When I fumbled speaking out loud in the classroom or in a circle of peers, I was further embarrassed when made fun of by some and picked on by others.
The embarrassment grew worse each year through middle school and into high school. During high school, I began isolating myself from social interaction.
I didn’t date. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t go to the prom. I dropped out of sports. I thought about skipping graduation ceremonies because no one would have known that I didn’t go.
And if high school wasn’t enough, there was college. I went to Penn State, which at the time was the perennial #1 party school.
However, I didn’t go to parties. Didn’t go into the bars frequented by other students.
I did have my first relationship with a girl in my sophomore year but it ended eighteen months later because I wouldn’t go to parties or out with the crowd in the bars.
Where did I go?
I hung out in the stacks at the library. I was typically in bed by ten o’clock and up by six. I had the same college roommate for three out of four years who was really the only friend that I made and relationship that I maintained.
I was one of the 36% who doesn’t seek treatment for ten years.
When I did, cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy sessions only got me so far.
I could enter into a conversation with a stranger but I couldn’t speak on the phone. I could read a book to one or two people but couldn’t read to a group.
As an adult, I had therapy to help develop social skills, but it didn’t wipe out the devastating memories of failure and it didn’t pour into me all the missed experiences.
Today, even though social anxiety and speech block no longer affect my daily living activities, I’m still aware of the skill deficits that should have been learned and experimented with in youth and young adulthood.
When faced with social situations that caused past intense anxiety, I feel the prick of a negative reaction and specific memories of terrible moments flare.
Those first feelings, those first thoughts, and those first reactions act like a short that trips a circuit breaker that needs a reset.
Today, I am able to think those situations through and realize why those negative feelings come back. And I’m able to keep them in perspective and reset the breaker.
Does it get easier over time?
Sure it does. However, it also takes putting yourself in those situations over and over again until that short circuit is no longer strong enough to trip the breaker.
It takes courage, self-confidence, and self-worth.
Building self-confidence and self-worth
I’ve written about the importance of meditation and prayer and getting connected to your energy source. These practices begin building self-confidence and self-worth.
Another critical component is daily affirmations.
Affirmations are declarations that affirm who you are.
I learned from reading and listening to Doreen Virtue that a good way to look at it is the following:
It isn’t good enough to say, “I will be the best sales representative in my company,” or “I will become a best-selling writer,” or “I will be the best partner to my significant other.”
All those can be followed with unless. It implies a conditional affirmation.
True affirmations don’t have conditions attached to them.
If you are a mediocre sales representative but you want to be the best, you would say, “I am the best sales rep in the company.”
You would say, “I am a best-selling writer and I have a best-selling book.”
You would say, “I am the best partner that my partner could ever possibly have.”
When affirmations are spoken every day, they become nested in your brain and you begin acting like you are the best partner or a best-selling writer.
You begin to incorporate new behaviors and habits that support those affirmations.
Affirmations are especially important when faced with negative life changes such as job loss, financial loss, and divorce. It’s easy and quick to slip back into the old ways of thinking.
Affirmations are the building blocks of self-worth.
If you think that you are battling symptoms of social anxiety, don’t wait to seek help. The earlier you speak with a therapist the higher likelihood of achieving the cure we all desire.
The longer you fight it and the more pervasive it becomes, the harder the cure.
Don’t wait 10 years.
Here are the three daily practices that should become lifetime habits:
Meditation guides our focus to the present and allows us the opportunity to connect with our divine energy source. It’s by connecting with our source that we develop the faith, courage, and strength to dissipate fear.
Prayer to seek help and guidance. By asking for help, often help shows up.
Affirmations because they help build and maintain self-worth.
Have faith in your abilities. Deem yourself worthy. Take control of fear and anxiety.
Thanks for reading!
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About The Author
I’m a writer, entrepreneur, and survivor. I share my experiences and discuss how to battle the odds and keep coming back. Don’t let fear and anxiety control your decisions in life.
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