Social interaction is as essential to a person’s well-being as diet and exercise. Without it, we're more susceptible to both physical and psychological diseases, with lonely people experiencing greater rates of depression, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. And sadder still, Socially-Isolated-Sally will even die at a younger age than Lisa-Lots-of-Friends. Nell Matzen, a writer who suffers from social anxiety, shares her experience living with the disorder.
For some, a lack of social interaction isn’t just circumstantial, it’s an uncomfortable choice driven by a psychological disorder.
According to Beyond Blue, sufferers of social anxiety disorder feel differing degrees of discomfort leading up to and during social interactions, which stem from the underlying fear of being judged, criticised or humiliated.
Just planning an outing can trigger a panic attack - so sometimes it’s just easier to sit out the birthday party/engagement party/Coles Little Shop swap meet. This disorder is particularly heinous - it takes something essential for health and happiness and turns it into an almost unbearable feat. It truly is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario.
Living with social anxiety
For me, socialising is like a duck paddling on a pond: it seems effortless on the surface, but underneath you’ll find a chaotic struggle.
You wouldn’t guess it by looking at me - I’ve really perfected my social facade. I’m fun, gregarious, and some have even said, “a bit much”. But half an hour before a group activity, I’m shaking, anxious and physically ill and when I feel the relief of my bed, I'm exhausted.
And it doesn’t end there. I’ve spent countless nights dissecting every conversation and interaction. Did I say something silly? Did she think I was rude? Did what’s-her-face like me?
Social anxiety has impacted every aspect of my life. I’ve avoided or downplayed major life events. I’ve disappointed friends and even lost a few along the way. And I’ve walked away from many opportunities and probably missed a thousand more.
You’re not alone and there is hope!
For a long time, my disorder was coupled with shame. I thought I was weak-willed and a little ridiculous, as no one else seemed to be having these issues.
In the last few years, I’ve realised that - while I was right about being a little ridiculous - I was very wrong about being alone in these thoughts.
Although it's an uncomfortable experience, by opening up to my loved ones I’ve found a handful of people who share my plight (most of them in the same gene pool). I’ve also been delighted by how understanding people can be and now have a solid group of friends that love me unconditionally – even when I disappear from a party at 9 pm.
According to Amy Newsom, a Psychologist with Body Matters Australasia (and one of said solid friends), almost five per cent of the population are affected by this disorder.
“Social anxiety affects every demographic. It isn’t just the shy kid at school, it’s a woman starting a new job, or a man heading to the pub after work for a beer,” she said.
The good news is there are many treatment options available, which - more often than not - are very successful.
“Of all the psychological disorders, treating anxiety with evidence-based practices gets the best results,” Amy says.
Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are particularly successful as they teach a person to challenge the negative thoughts associated with the disorder or let them go.
“People experiencing an anxiety disorder are ruled by their intrusive negative thoughts, and these practices teach them to capture and unpack the thought, ultimately challenging its validity,” Amy explains.
Amy advised that it’s essential to first identify when there is an issue: “see it as something you experience, not a personal trait. As soon as you realise this, you’ll be on the path to changing your thinking.”
It’s taken me many years, and many therapeutic interventions, to finally separate myself from social anxiety disorder. Yes, it’s still with me and at times as debilitating as ever, but I finally recognise it as a treatable illness.
The negative thoughts will never be completely gone, but with doctors, psychologists and medication, I can learn to manage them and hopefully see you down at the pub some time.