Do We Really Know What Social Anxiety Is? #MentalHealthWeek

Nidhi Pattni

A lot of us apply to university with a laundry list of doubts and apprehensions: What will the city be like? Will I make friends? Is this the right place for me? These are common questions that an FAQ section on the university website can help out with to ease your mind. But some of us have a longer list of intense, excruciating fears and whether our chosen university has a respectable ranking or not is definitely not at the top it. I am not a professional and by no means do I know everything about this subject, but people in my life have opened up to me about their journey with social anxiety from their debilitating day-to-day experience with it to finding solutions that worked for them. And knowing how many people silently suffer from this global issue, I thought speaking to someone who has shared their story with me would be able to help at least one person worried about making it through their university degree whilst fighting this internal battle.

Social anxiety is a condition that many think they know all about, before writing this article, I too, was a part of that majority. We pat ourselves on the back for comforting a friend suffering from it by giving them one-liners like “just put yourself out there more” or “join a society”. But social anxiety is not something that can be brushed off by talking to the person next to you at a baking society social, it’s a deep-rooted mental condition that very few take the time out to educate themselves about.

Kashaf Siddique, a Bachelor of Commerce student at Ryerson University in Toronto describes living with her social anxiety or social phobia as reducing oneself to all the mistakes they’ve made, all their inadequacies, and all the things they didn’t do in their lives and having this belief that this amalgamation of insufficiencies is what everyone sees when they look at them. She said “It’s like the fear of being exposed to people around you and that’s rooted in me feeling like I’m not good enough to face and form connections with people”. Living with this illness everyday was debilitating for Kashaf as she found regular day-to-day activities exhausting. It affected every aspect of her life, from her academic performance to daily social interactions.

Mark R. Leary and Robin M. Kowalski, authors of the book “Social Anxiety” narrowed it down to a state of constant stage fright that can occur at various events or situations in one’s life. It could be a presentation you have to give in front of your class of 30 people and you feel beads of sweat rolling down your forehead, or the simple task of ordering a beverage at Starbucks that could feel draining. People often confuse social anxiety with being an introvert. However, being an introvert has more to do with one being more comfortable in their own company, whereas according to Leary and Kowalski, social anxiety is more of a state of being concerned with people’s perceptions or impressions of us as individuals.

I asked Kashaf what she thought people often get wrong about social anxiety, she responded by saying “Due to our reliance on films and television shows to educate us about social interactions and behaviours, people don’t understand that social anxiety is a constant war taking place in one’s mind that is never shown to the world”. She further explained that people tend to simplify social anxiety for themselves by categorising it as a form of social awkwardness. They see a character in a romantic comedy, or Netflix drama that seems to be the wallflower and they think that’s what social anxiety must be like. But the reality is far more disturbing and agonizing than what is portrayed to the masses.

We also discussed a very important aspect of mental health, getting help. The first thing we spoke about is the challenges and roadblocks one faces when they try to deconstruct their battle with this illness to explain it to a friend or loved one. I asked her whether she had gotten any advice that didn’t help her situation, to which she replied “I had people tell me that I just need to ‘get through it’ and would push me to explore the kinds of treatments they had heard about”. While she acknowledged that these words of advice came from a place of genuine concern, she sometimes felt that it wasn’t conveyed in a way she would have found more helpful.

Understandably, when someone we care about is struggling with such a complex internal battle, our natural instinct is to pull up all the resources we have at our disposal whether that may be a Google search or a distant aunt who was once a clinical psychologist to provide our loved ones with all the answers we can get. But sometimes, it is perfectly sufficient and often more impactful to sit back, listen and ask questions if you are unsure. All you can do is to give your loved one the respect of your undivided attention.

The second step in coping with social anxiety is obtaining professional help. Kashaf has been seeing progress in her mental health with the help of a therapist for the past year. She speaks to her therapist on the phone every two weeks and learns constructive ways to navigate her busy university schedule and demanding social life with her ongoing social anxiety. And she is happy to report that she is doing much better! When I asked her if she had seen any major improvements in her mental health, she said “I have started recognising patterns in the way I think and behave, you begin to realise that a lot of the things about yourself that you consider embarrassing are not even noticed by other people”. She also began to take care of herself more for example, by giving herself more time to get ready before heading out to an event knowing that she becomes very anxious when she’s running late. It’s learning about what makes you anxious and saving yourself from that feeling by being prepared, almost like having an emotional first aid kit.

I have had the privilege of observing Kashaf’s progress at a personal level. I saw significant changes in her behaviour and her interactions with people and it made me realise that often when one struggles with an emotional or mental crisis, they shut down and spiral over how things could continue to get worse. But Kashaf’s story is one of those reminders that change might be slow and you might have to be patient with yourself, but with the right help and a determination to manage your anxiety in a more efficient and productive way, like Kashaf, you too can make a shift in your thinking from worrying about the ‘What ifs’ to asking yourself ‘So what?’