I’m not a doctor. I’m just a girl who found out when I was sixteen that I had Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), and I’d like to share a few things I learned about it in case it helps someone.
I grew up thinking I was just really shy and awkward. I dreaded social interactions of all kinds without any sensible reason to. I had never been bullied or teased growing up and classmates always tried to be nice to me. They just didn’t know what to make of my silence, my serious attitude, and my tendency to look down at the floor—and I couldn’t blame them for that. I blamed myself, instead, for the way I was feeling.
I overheard once that my classmates thought I was a snob who didn’t want to socialize with them, which shocked me at the time. I thought that everyone could see how terrified I was. I would blush, stammer, not know what to do with my hands or body, and constantly want to run away to hide. Every time someone spoke to me, I viewed it as a test that I was sure I would fail, and I would feel like I was close to crying. I was sure I would embarrass myself, everyone would laugh, and I’d be found out.
I didn’t feel human.
I felt like an alien who landed on Earth without any way to understand what the purpose of conversation was, what people really meant when sometimes they said exactly the opposite, or what they really thought of me. All of those things terrified me to my core: I thought there was no way to make it through this world without understanding those things or being okay with not knowing them. Today, I can look back, knowing I was just dealing with a mental illness and needed some help.
SAD ≠ shyness
SAD may be the cause of some people’s shyness, but it is not “just” shyness. It is constant and extreme. I’m talking about feeling anxious days in advance of a family party where everyone loves you and supports you, or dreading watching a movie with a friend you’ve had for eight years and see almost every single day. Some people’s shyness is circumstantial—such as a boy’s stammering around girls and fleeing them—whereas SAD is something that you take with you everywhere. SAD is also distinct from just being an anxious person. If you’re anxious about everything, then you would have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but if you specifically have fears related to socializing, then SAD is what you have.
Don’t be disheartened by the fact that SAD is “constant and extreme”—I promise it gets easier to deal with! It just may take a significant amount of time, or it might require some specific things before you can begin to make progress. It took me more time than I would’ve liked, but now I am at a place in my life where my SAD hardly ever gets in my way.
A SAD romance ≠ a sad romance
Once you come to terms with having SAD, you might think it means you can’t have fulfilling friendships or romantic relationships, but that’s not true. It simply means that you will have to take a different approach than most people, it will be harder for you in certain ways, and you will likely be very choosy about whom you spend that effort on.
Romantic relationships can be very difficult for someone with SAD because it opens you up to getting hurt or embarrassed, which is what you are trying to avoid. It can feel like you have to fight yourself in order to allow yourself to be vulnerable, get close to someone, and trust them not to hurt you. It’s scary because you may not know how someone will react to your SAD once they realize the extent of it or what it really means. Still, try to keep in mind that the person you’re looking for will love you for who you are, even though you have SAD. Finding out that someone isn’t okay with your SAD will be disappointing, but in the long run, it’s a good thing to know.
Online might be a good place to start
If you have SAD, being around people in person can be overwhelming to the point where you can’t think straight and all you can feel is fear. You’ll eventually have to start retraining your brain to deeply understand that nothing really bad will happen when you’re around people. This is a process that can take many years. A treatment of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is usually a good tactic for that, where you identify your negative thoughts in association with situations that are increasingly difficult for you, attempting to challenge and overcome them.
The online world can help with this, as you can start talking to people remotely in a place where you feel safe and comfortable. If at any point you feel too nervous, you can simply log off. (I personally used a virtual world called Second Life to do this, as it felt more real to see an avatar representing me.) An app like Dragonfruit would also be a great way to get to know someone because you will already know if you have some shared interests. If everything goes well, eventually you will want to meet someone face-to-face.
I recommend thinking about SAD the same way you would think about chicken pox. Both are illnesses you can’t help having, with symptoms you cannot control. But you can control how you handle having them. If you scratch with chicken pox, you are possibly creating lifelong scars that you don’t want. But you can choose not to scratch. With SAD, if you let yourself think negative thoughts, then you are “scratching”. You have to consciously recognize when you are imagining worst-case scenarios and shut that down. Think about best-case scenarios, instead. (If it helps to wear oven mitts to do so, so be it!)
You can also think of your brain as an untrained puppy. Reward yourself when you do something social or think positive thoughts about socializing. When you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, give yourself a metaphorical whack on the nose with a newspaper. Slowly, but surely, you will see improvement. This is best handled with a therapist, but I understand from experience that someone with SAD may have difficulty going to see someone to talk about this, since seeing someone is the problem. But when you can, I highly recommend seeking professional help so that you can move on with the rest of your life as quickly as possible.
Where I am now
Thirteen years has passed since I first heard the term “Social Anxiety Disorder” and immediately recognized, “Wow, that’s me!” Back then, I was terrified to go anywhere for any reason, because people would see me, and I was terrified of being judged negatively. It would sometimes take me days to convince myself to go anywhere, and even then, it had to be for an unavoidable reason. Now I hardly think twice before going out, sometimes needing to glance down at myself as I lock the door, to make sure I definitely have pants on. That’s how little thought I can now put into it.
But I still have SAD. It’s always going to follow me. I still have to constantly shut down negative thoughts when they pop up and make sure I don’t analyze social interactions to death. But by now it has become habit. Every time you go out the door, or talk to someone, or stop yourself thinking negatively, will make it easier the next time. It just progresses very slowly. Your brain will not be a quick study in this regard. But the more frequently you do it, the faster the results. I also think that the older you are the easier it will get, because you will have more perspective on how little people are paying you any attention, and you’ll gain experience of how little things matter in the long run, even when they seem very significant at the time.
I used to be led around by my SAD like I was its pet and it was trying to train me to be unhappy. But now I’m the one holding the leash, training it to behave, and that’s how it should be. I’m now happily married, able to speak with strangers, able to give public presentations (although they’re not my favorite thing), and able to have fun around people. So if you have SAD, I encourage you to not give up hope. Slowly but steadily, you will find a way to seize control, accept your SAD as a unique part of you, and build a fulfilling life.