Like all mental illnesses, social anxiety isn’t the easiest of conditions to understand. That goes for the people who live with it every day so it’s little wonder that those with no experience of it struggle to get their heads around it.
I am not sure why I suffer from social anxiety and can’t even pin point when it started. I certainly don’t fully know what the triggers are and why on some days I feel confident as hell and on others I can’t even leave the house.
But there are some things that I do know and, with the knowledge that I am not alone, here are 15 things people who experience social anxiety need you to understand.
1. We’re not rude
We can certainly be construed as such – and I have found myself on many occasions kicking myself for accidentally coming across this way. Incidentally, the fear that we are offending people can exacerbate the anxiety that has caused us to go into our shells in the first place but being quiet, not responding to calls or declining invites isn’t our way of being a dick, it’s something that we really can’t help.
It’s self preservation, rather than an attack or a bad attitude and while it’s easy to confuse aspects of social anxiety with stand-offishness, it’s really not the case.
2. It’s nothing personal
We may end up declining more than a few invitations and you may not hear from us in weeks but that doesn’t mean that we dislike you or don’t want to be your friend nor are you likely to have done anything to offend us.
When we retreat into our shell, we don’t discriminate – it’s contact itself that we find so difficult.
3. Some days it’s absolutely fine
While sometimes we can barely get out of bed and function as normal human beings, other days can be the complete opposite and we can be inexplicably filled with confidence. A common misconception with many mental illnesses is that the symptoms and reactions are constantly there but, in actual fact, there are some days when we find it much easier to socialise and engage with others, occasionally to the point where you would never tell there was a problem.
4. It’s not always obvious
With the above in mind, you can’t always tell who is battling with social anxiety – and seeing someone interacting and laughing doesn’t mean that they are suddenly over it. With everything, it’s a case of never knowing what inner battles anyone is facing just to function through a day – so being nice and considerate regardless.
5. Understanding goes a long way
When someone with social anxiety accepts an invitation, they genuinely want to go and they may have said yes either because they felt okay at the time or they wanted to summon the strength to attend this time. The relief of having that escape route and being able to cancel without being judged or criticised is massively helpful so not resenting a cancellation can be one of the best things you can do for someone feeling trapped by social anxiety.
Similarly, if they do make it to an event and are quiet or not contributing to discussions, pulling them up on it in front of others can really trigger the anxiety that they have been brave enough to fight back against before coming out. Sometimes just being there is all the energy we can muster so even though you mean well, there can often be a reason people are quiet or withdrawn that they don’t want to draw attention to.
If you are concerned, maybe send a text or casually ask if everything is okay when no-one else is around.
6. It’s not something people can just ‘get over’
‘Pull yourself together’. ‘It’s not that bad’. ‘Man up.’ ‘Get a grip, it’s just a few people.’ None of it is helpful and none of it is an accurate reflection of how much of a powerful hold a mental condition such as this can take.
Similar to ‘just stand on your broken leg, it’s not that sore’, it doesn’t work like that. If only.
7. We don’t hate people
There is often a correlation between people who are withdrawn due to being too nervous to interact and their feelings towards people but I love humans from my friends and family to my colleagues and the various new people I sometimes meet.
Sometimes they won’t see the best of me and I will pull back from them but I don’t hate the human race as a whole; in fact, the most painful part is social anxiety is feeling unable to interact more when it’s all I actually want to do sometimes.
8. It can be triggered by nothing
There is rarely a rhyme or a reason why that punch to the gut feeling and that panicky rush in the chest suddenly unfolds – we wish we knew, it might be easier to anticipate or deal with then. Some days our minds just react to things in a certain way – and they can be as minimal as knowing that the Amazon delivery guy is coming to our door or seeing an unidentified number on our phone.
9. It’s not just limited to face to face contact
Speaking of phones, social anxiety goes beyond not feeling able to be in a crowded situation. It can be a one on one conversation with someone you would trust with your life and it can even be triggered by the thought of a phone call, an email that sounds ever so slightly passive aggressive or a tweet or comment on Facebook.
It might be easier to be more direct online when you aren’t seeing a person’s reactions but that email you sent several days ago or that angry tweet you left on someone’s page that you forgot about may still be with them and may have caused them untold distress.
10. Going to an event can be a big deal
The anticipation to the event can often be as bad – and sometimes worse – than the event itself. So if someone with social anxiety has made it, it could have taken a great deal of courage. Be aware that they may well want to leave at a moment’s notice and, not wanting to draw any attention, might not say bye. The fact that they attended in the first place shows that they wanted to be there and may have endured an inner battle to get there so please don’t take offence if they make a hasty retreat.
Again, it’s not personal.
11. It can be genuinely scary
Feeling scared of human contact is deeply daunting and can have a massive effect on someone’s lives and, on a bad day, this can even lead to panic attacks which are absolutely terrifying. The impact is far more than missing out on the odd party – I have found myself a quivering wreck in the hours before someone was due to pay a visit.
12. It’s far more than shyness
Again, it’s an easy comparison to make but social anxiety runs far deeper than just being shy. In fact, sometimes those who suffer don’t always experience shyness and can be extrovert and confident at other times.
Describing it as being shy is underestimating how much it can control a life – it’s an illness.
13. Please don’t stop inviting us
We can’t really blame you for knocking us off your invite list when we keep turning you down but, if you are able to bear in mind the earlier points that it’s not personal and it’s not that we don’t want to attend, then we really appreciate still being invited.
Even if we don’t end up attending, it’s still nice to know that our condition hasn’t cost us friends and, again, it’s not the case that we can never find the strength to go to things. Don’t dismiss us, the gesture of saying we are welcome and wanted can help take the sting out of being unable to go.
14. Everyone is different
As with everything, there are no hard and fast rules so the points raised in this article may not fully apply to everyone. Obviously, first and foremost, it’s a case of approaching the person you know well as a human and their condition second. Each person will be affected differently – to use the analogy of the broken leg again, it’s much easier to treat and deal with as everyone responds to it in a similar way – as in it’s f***ing sore.
Mental health is different and one symptom may affect one person way more than it does another and one way of helping a friend may not work someone else. I’m sure this fact is almost condescending as it seems completely obvious to say that everyone should be treated as individuals rather than just as a person with the condition but it can often be forgotten, especially when the illness is difficult to understand.
15. We’re sorry
Genuinely, we are. We’re sorry for always cancelling, we’re sorry for being hard to deal with, we’re sorry for sometimes being a shit friend and we’re sorry for being snappy and withdrawn sometimes.
But we’re immensely grateful for the understanding shown and the friends and family making allowances for the condition and being there for us make it far easier to manage.
Main image by Ben van Duyvendyk