This post will be about my thoughts on social anxiety based on research, experience, and conversations with others.
Everyone gets nervous in social situations every once in a while. Perhaps at a big business convention or at a dance for all the incoming freshmen.
But imagine waking up in your dorm room with a sinking feeling because you’re already nervous about eating breakfast in front of people in the dining common. So you eat in your room. Then you head to your first class with your head down to avoid eye contact with people. You sit in class and begin working. But you can’t concentrate because you feel like everyone is watching you. Like a spotlight is on you. And everyone is scrutinizing your every move. And no matter how many times people try to tell you that you’re just an extra on stage – the same as everyone else – you can’t shake the feeling. Your next class is across campus. There will be so many people you will have to walk through. The bell rings. You exhale, put your head down, and walk. Your mind is already tired, and you’ve only made it through first period.
Maybe you’re skeptical about this illustration. Perhaps you’re thinking, why can’t people just get over themselves? No one cares what they do, no one is watching. And, besides, everyone gets nervous sometimes. Well, here’s my response: I think that this is one of the disorders that doesn’t seem serious unless you have it. Psychologists have determined that there is a marked difference between having social anxiety and having a social anxiety disorder. And note that this is listed as a disorder. And it does affect its victims.
I have talked at length with a friend who has social anxiety. She often seems weary because, let’s face it, our society is a very social society. And I think that’s good. We are meant to be with people. Long ago, when we figured out how agriculture works, we all gathered together in cities. We knew that we could help each other if we came together.
But, just take a moment and think about how many activities take place under the scrutiny of the public eye each day. Walking, talking, eating, drinking, answering a question in class, going to the mall with friends, even just studying in a room with other people. While most of these activities seem commonplace to you, to 19.2 million people in America, many or all of these activities cause them great distress. Everyday. Now that’s exhausting.
And, unfortunately, there is no cure all. Telling someone to “Stop being shy” or to “Stop being so nervous” is not going to do anything. It’s like yelling “Grow legs!” to a rock. Nothing is going to happen. Psychologists can prescribe medicine but, as with most mental disorders, this can only do so much.
So, if you have a friend or family member who suffers from social anxiety, try to place yourself in their shoes. Remember that, especially in college, you are around other people all the time always. And, for some people, this type of environment sucks away their energy. Note: Of course, this can be said of many different issues. Everyone you see on the sidewalk is currently going through some type of trial, be it small or big, short-term or long-term. So be nice and considerate to everyone in general.
And, if you suffer from social anxiety, try to place yourself in other people’s shoes. First, remember that they have their own issues that they are dealing with. That boy who sits next to you in class probably isn’t scrutinizing your work ethics. He’s too busy trying to pass the class so he doesn’t get yelled at again by his parents who are never proud of him. The girls who were laughing behind you on the sidewalk probably weren’t making fun of your clothes. They were simply reminiscing about their weekend activities. And your classmates probably don’t criticize your eating habits behind your back. They themselves are struggling with eating too much or too little at times.
Second, realize that if you never talk to people, people will probably never talk to you. If you always have your head down and your phone out, people will probably not talk to you. And if you never say yes to an invitation to go somewhere, you will probably not get invited anywhere. I know it’s hard to be social – that’s why we’re talking about social anxiety – but put yourself in their shoes. They probably aren’t rude people for not talking to someone who doesn’t talk back or for not inviting someone who never comes. They themselves dislike being rejected by you – no matter the reason why – just as much as you hate being rejected by others. Don’t give yourself a free pass. You can hurt others even whilst you yourself are hurting.
Is there any solution?
Now, I know it’s hard to change your thinking patterns. But, I think that the best cure may simply be to forget about yourself. Completely. For a whole day instead of thinking about what others are thinking about you, try to think about what others are thinking about themselves. Is that boy in your class struggling with math? Offer to help him in study hall. Is that girl in your sorority having a hard time because her parents just got a divorce? Offer a listening ear. Are your parents struggling to get dinner on the table? Offer to help cook for them.
At first, this may seem scary to forget about what others might be thinking about you. But, even though I am not a psychologist, I am positive that this is effective. Soon, tuning in to other people’s needs will become second nature to you. People will begin to see you in a new light. They will appreciate that you give your time, energy, money, talents, or whatever it is in order to help them. Even if they don’t say so out in the open, people know when someone is making a sacrifice for them. And they appreciate it. And they remember it.
And soon, these people will be more open to you. As you can imagine, people are much more receptive to people who not only say that they care, but also show that they care. Soon you will find that you have a wide range of loyal friends. Now that, my friends, is living. Not staying inside feeling fear and anxiety all the time. Do not let yourself be defeated. Make yourself go out, and make yourself concentrate on others. Don’t clam up, because once you enter the comfort of your shell, you might not come back out. Break the shell. Smash it. Smash it so that shutting yourself in isn’t an option. Because you have so much to offer. Even to just one person, you could be that listening ear or helpful hand that they need to make it through something really hard. Be open to people, and they will be open to you.
Note: the comic I used comes from Social Anxiety Comics