“My close friend, my only real friend, invited me out for dinner last week. I was so excited because I hadn’t been out in over three months and just craved social interaction. We were going to go for some pizza and then play some pool. But a day after inviting me — three days before the plans were going to happen — he told me that a few of his friends would be coming as well.
The moment he said that I felt my stomach drop. My heart rate sped up and I began to slightly tremble as I pictured myself shaking hands with new people, trying to think of conversation topics that would last more than 10 seconds, attempting to think of ways I could seem cool and interesting, and trying to figure out how I could hide my anxiety at the same time.
I started doing mental gymnastics to find a way around meeting them — maybe my friend and I could meet up for a quick drink before his dinner plans. But then I realized it would be much harder to get out of it if I met up with him before, and I knew I’d cave in. Finally, I made up a little white lie, and figured it would be much easier to text him and bail on the plans — I made it seem like I had plans I’d forgotten about, but that he and I could meet up soon.
I stayed home, ordered a pizza, played on the computer, and watched some DVR’d shows. It’s now been almost four months since I last went out — and that last time was with the same one friend.”
For many of us, meeting new people can be really scary. How many times have you been invited to an event — a party, dinner with a friend and their friends, lunch with a business associate, a weekend away with a friend or your partner and their family and friends — and turned it down for the comfort and safety of your own home? For the sincere social butterflies in the world, meeting new people can be exciting and fulfilling, however for those who struggle with social anxiety, the mere thought of meeting new people can trigger significant anxiety and even panic symptoms.
Social anxiety as a whole is a complex issue. It appears in numerous forms, and has many possible reasons for finding its way into our lives. As with everything else, there are also varying degrees of anxiety that is experienced from one person to the next. For this reason, this will be a three part post to discuss the following: Part 1: What does social anxiety look like? Part 2: Where does social anxiety come from? Part 3: What can be done to get past social anxiety?
There are times in our lives when we get tired, or there is a great movie or marathon of shows on TV and we just want to lounge on the couch with a meal or dessert — so we choose not to go out. This is not social anxiety. The motivation here isn’t to avoid uncomfortable symptoms associated with socializing. This was merely a decision and desire to do something at home (however, if the desire to stay home too often should arise — even if not to avoid social anxiety — there could be a different issue at hand).
Although social anxiety appears in different ways, the link between each is the feeling of anxiety or panic that, at its most basic level, is caused by fear of embarrassment, judgement or rejection by others. It mostly appears when the social situation involves meeting new people, however it can also exist with people we have known for a long time. It is common for people to completely avoid social situations, or still go out and socialize while just trying to “get through it” and go home.
Social anxiety often includes a fear that people won’t like us, or a fear that we may be boring and uninteresting. We may feel inferior, or different and unable relate, which can trigger a fear of awkwardness and drive the anxiety and avoidance.
People often fear the meeting and greeting interaction and have thoughts such as, “I don’t know what to say,” or “I’m a bad conversationalist,” etc. But in reality it’s not always the conversations that cause the problem. For many people conversations alone aren’t a big deal, but something such as eating in front of people causes anxiety. In fact, even someone who enjoys social dialogue can still experience anxiety days prior to an event if it involves going to a restaurant or a friend’s house for dinner.
The tension, nervousness, and brain exercising of removing ourselves from these situations can be overwhelming. A woman told me of her experience with severe anxiety whenever eating in front of anyone (I’ll go more into what causes this in part 2). Early on, the anxiety was so overwhelming that she began to avoid the situations because she couldn’t eat. She used to make herself go to restaurants with people and then take over half of her meal home. (Anxiety involves the “fight or flight” mechanism, which sets our bodies on alert — an emotional and chemical environment not conducive to eating). She would go home and finish her dinner after when she felt calm and safe again.
If you struggle with social anxiety, you’re certainly not alone. It is a common issue, and it’s quite possible that many of the people you meet go through some of the same emotions that you’re experiencing. Stay tuned for part 2, which will discuss where social anxiety originates.
Shaking hands photo available from Shutterstock