Sunday, May 17, 2015

Life with an anxiety disorder - Part VI: Social anxiety

Oh finally I get to the interesting part, huh? Yep, we're going straight to the core of my issues here. Social anxiety: The devil of the mind. Let's face it, the fewest of us can live happy lives living alone in a cabin in the woods writing manifestos and sending letter bombs to politicians. Humans are social animals, we need other humans around to function, to be content, to be happy. Look at any study any scientist has done over the past century on what isolation from other humans does to the human mind. We can't handle being without others of our kind. It's one of the things that are at the core of our being.

Social anxiety messes all that up. You still want to be around others, but you fear any situation in which others are around. Remember the Greek myth of Tantalus? The punishment of wanting something, needing something, but whenever you reach for it, you can't get near. This is social anxiety, the fear of a thing that you need to be a human being.

Many people with an anxiety disorder have issues with social anxiety. In fact it is a common companion of most mental illnesses. Aside from depression, it might be the most wide-spread issue in the psychiatric field. And it is so god damn troublesome. It takes away one of the things most essential to life. I think if you were to dissect the issue, there would be many reasons for social anxiety among different people, and many different ways it manifests itself. It ranges from discomfort to an outright phobia. Some hide it well and somehow cope with situations, others react to the sight of another human the same way I would to a huge spider. (see previous post)

For me, the issue is that I am incredibly socially awkward, just react to people in ways that are weird to most, and I am incredibly self-conscious about it. The latter is where my anxiety stems from, the constant fear of screwing up around people, making an ass of myself, looking ridiculous, embarrassing myself. Every time I feel I do or say something that looks or sounds weird to people who see or hear it, I get the typical issues with trouble breathing and the high pulse, symptoms of a panic attack. I am so incredibly scared of what my social awkwardness looks like to other people. It doesn't matter if it's in a conversation and I say something I feel was stupid, which I then think about over and over while freaking out inside, or if it's something as simple as riding my bicycle and people see me, and I feel I hold my arm in a way that might look weird or something. I have this massive fear of what people might think when they see me or hear me talk. That's why any situation involving any other human beings causes huge amounts of anxiety, and why I came to avoid such situations as much as I can.

What begins there is a vicious cycle. For one, isolation makes you more socially inept. Social interaction is something that requires constant practice, and the more you get out of the loop, the more you unlearn it, the worse you get at it. And to add to that is that the anxiety puts you so on edge that you are more likely to make mistakes, or what you consider mistakes, and the more the anxiety increases. More anxiety leads to more isolation, more isolation leads to more anxiety. More anxiety leads to more social ineptness, more social ineptness leads to more anxiety. It's a hellish conundrum that once you're in it, you can't go anywhere but sink deeper, and getting out or even getting better is nearly impossible. And like I said, it is depriving you of something you need, something you want and desire, but like Tantalus it is impossible for you to reach it. Your social anxiety pushes you deeper into isolation for every attempt you make to get out. And with isolation comes depression, to the point of despondency. You are in a prison from which you cannot escape, and it is one of the most desolate prisons imaginable.

There are ways out. I've been out once in my life when I did a day clinic type of thing in 2012. It requires social situations you can't avoid for one thing. The next thing it requires is that the social situations are with people who share or at least understand your problem. So either other socially anxious people or people with a related illness who can imagine what it's like. Another point that is important is that they are what I call "good-hearted people", people who mean well and care about you feeling well in a social situation as much as they care about their own situation. That point really comes down to luck, unfortunately. Of course another point is that you always have to have a therapist handy to guide you, explain problems to you and reassure you. And finally the most important point: Once you have all the aforementioned factors together in one place and have these social situations with that type of people, repeat it. Repeat it all day, every day, for at least weeks, ideally months. You have a lot of catching up to do in terms of practicing social situations, so cram as much into whatever time you have as possible. Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. That's how you eventually learn to get comfortable and handle social situations well, eventually not just in the safe circle of the clinic people but in daily life as well. It's not a failsafe method and probably won't work in a hundred percent of all cases, but for the majority of people that's the best shot.

Unfortunately after the day clinic I slipped right back to where I was because nobody cared to give me a follow-up thing to do. What's important is that after therapy to get out of the social anxiety problem, you continue to be in and seek out social situations. You gotta keep your practice up. That's really the big issue with social anxiety. It comes back instantly the moment you allow it to. There's no "oh, I'll spend a week alone to relax" for someone with social anxiety, you don't have that option, no matter how appealing the thought is, because you are inviting the illness right back into your life. Staying social is the only way to keep these torments of Tantalus out of your life. Stay in frequent contact and interaction with other people, or relapse all the way back into the deepest depths of isolation. Social anxiety is one torturous illness, so if you suffer from it, seek therapy, find a safe environment to relearn social interaction, then, for the sake of whatever values you believe in, do everything to keep it from coming back into your life.

1 comment:

  1. I understand you so well.

    I love reading this from someone like you, who is on the other hand very self confident (at least when it comes to reviewing music), and makes me feel less weak or stupid for feeling this social anxiety. After all, I know no one gives a fuck for what I do, and therefore I shouldn't be affraid of what people thinks of me. But I am. And I often feel like the eyes of everyone staring at me when I walk the street, and I analize the possible thoughts of all of them.

    And I know it's a matter of "practice", but it feels so exhausting: those normal situations which "regular" people just enjoy, they are a struggle to me. And I need some time out to go through the conversations I've had and check that I haven't said anything wrong. And I need extra time to relax (hopefully in a non-destructive way) before I face the world again. I don't believe I could ever stand this continous "keeping in social situations" that you say it's the only way...