What does social-anxiety feel like? Is it just being mildly uncomfortable when you’re surrounded by people you don’t know? Is it the unending shivers you get when you have to walk up to a podium? Or is it a constriction, as if something was holding down our chest, forcing us to not breathe whilst in the midst of the unknown? The last guess is probably the most accurate one I can provide. As many have probably correctly assumed, this post will be a discussion on social-anxiety: what it is, how one feels under its effects, and how one might possibly overcome it. As a disclosure, I have to say that I do not have a degree in psychology, and have only read a few books regarding the condition. My observations and opinions will primarily be based on personal experience and the account of sources I’ve deemed reliable. With this introduction out of the way, we can finally begin to delve deep into the world of the socially-anxious.
When did I first learn of having social-anxiety? I can’t put an exact date on its occurrence, but I can assume that it began quite early on in my life, as I began to see therapists at the tender age of nine. The reasoning behind being put in a psychologist’s office is quite a handful, and I hope you’ll endure the minutiae I am about to tell you. For now, let us just say that the roots of my problem lies within my family and the school I was put in.
I didn’t have the most peaceful of families growing up. When I was born, my parents were in the middle of a divorce. I stayed with my mother, without really knowing why my father only visited us every four or six months. As a barely-grown toddler, I thought the situation was nothing out of the ordinary, that perhaps other children see their fathers as rarely as I did. I was wrong, of course. My family was anything but average.
There is a certain peculiarity to my siblings’—all three of them are women much older than I am, the youngest being born twelve years before I was—response to the predicament they found their family in. In films, literature, and other works of fiction, the children of the divorced or of troubled households usually pursue a life of crime, vices, wild escapades away from home. None of these things happened in my walls. My sisters and I stayed with our mother, maybe for the worse.
It is not often you see sibling rivalry that could be described as “hazardous,” but that’s exactly the sort of relationship my sisters had. Plates were regularly flung between them—once the ballistic object was the spiky fruit knows as ‘durian’—on a specific occasion, one of them tried to crush the other by toppling a cupboard, and knife-duels were not special events, rather ones that happened every month or so. They were violent, terrifying, and were the people I tried to avoid most in my early life.
When my sisters did not have an immediate target during their periods of angst, I was the only one left. And the most vulnerable. Fortunately, perhaps since they still had some amount of sense in them, they never threatened my physical well-being, just the mental counterpart. Scoldings, chewing outs, and all sorts of verbal abuses were thrown at me—complete with foul language in volumes with intolerable decibels. Sometimes, these acts came out of a clear but insignificant reason, such as dropping a plate, at others they would come out of the blue. As I played my old PlayStation, read my books, either one of my sisters would come hurdling into whatever room I was in, telling—yelling, to be precise—me that I had made a terrible mistake, that I was a disappoint, that I was a moron. To their credit, they had a very diverse vocabulary of mockeries.
To my young, impressionable mind, my sisters formed the template of humanity in my mind: that we are all cruel, savage creatures, who would lash out at whatever target we deemed suitable. Thus I was afraid. Not only of the members of my chaotic family, but of everyone around me. Especially those older, and in possession of larger physical statures than mine. As a result, I became a timid, reclusive child, one that can’t adequately be described in a single sentence.
To give a purview of what my childhood-self was like, a brief retelling of my first few years in academia is necessary—not out of narcissism, as no other period of my life embarrasses me more so than that of my earlier years, instead this decision is made for the purpose of clarification. I was a small child, shorter than almost all of the boys in my kindergarten and elementary schools. I would refuse to engage in any type of social interactions with my fellow students, and could never look a teacher in the eye. When someone older than myself came to talk to me, concerning matters which should not cause me to be fretful, I would look away, pretend to be unable to hear, and pray that the person would simply walk away in frustration. When I walked, my eyes were glued to the floor, as I was afraid that someone—be it a student or teacher—would find me to be a delectable prey. And sounds, be it the banging of a fallen object, faraway shouts, yells directed not at myself, were all enough to send me into fits of hysteria. This is a brief description of what I was like, but I hope it has managed to illustrate a vivid enough image in the readers’ minds.
I have to say, that it is not without reason that I had adopted the mantle of reclusion at school. My place of education was not a very tolerant one. It was one of the highest ranked schools in my district, and it proved its status by popping out alumni worthy of scholarships, exchange programs, and such likes. Yet their methods were harsh, even by my present standards. An ‘A’ is considered as average, and a ‘B’ as unsatisfactory. The educators would show their displeasure by corporeal and oral punishments, dishing them out almost every day to the unluckier of my peers. I was spared these misfortunes due to my aptitude in academics, yet the fear they deliberately instilled in their students was stuck within me. That of, “meet our expectations or expect the consequences.” Already a fragile, unstable, anxious child, the atmosphere of my school worsened my condition. To the point that by the fourth grade I refused to attend any formal educational facilities whatsoever, once jerking the steering wheel of my mother’s car to ram it into a wall of bushes. That’s how afraid I was of schooling, of the people inside of it. That I was willing to risk my life just to avoid another eight hours of class.
Perhaps this is the moment where I should try to describe what social-anxiety truly feels like. It is as if each pair of eyes in the room is looking straight at you, through you; seeing every flaw that you have whilst you yourself know that you have no redeeming qualities. A lingering fear of someone, one you may or may not know, pouncing on you unexpectedly, beating or—a gentler act—yelling at you for no reason. Meanwhile, you have no defenses for yourself. Your arms are as frail as twigs, your words as meaningless as a breeze in a storm. Defenseless in the face of unknown adversaries, with intents you can scarcely guess and merely assume the worst of them all. At its most hurtful moments, it could lead one to panic attacks qne asphyxia, all due to what the sufferer perceives as—though more often than not, non-existent—terrifying judgments from people who he knows likely by face alone. Then there are the dreams.
As you fall into your slumber, a person, an animal, a beast, or whatever it is your mind can conjure up will appear in your dreams. That being will chase you, endlessly, through forests or cities, mountains or oceans, it shall never stop. No matter how far you think you’ve run, it will always be behind you, breathing down your neck as the chills run down your spine. You do not know what it wants, why it’s running after you without pause. All that is in your mind is a sense of dread, which dictates that whatever happens you must not get caught by the figure behind you. If you do, as I have been, you’ll scream through the stillness of the night, with your chest feeling as if boulders had been forced upon them for hours on end. Sweat, difficulty to breathe, overwhelming fear and paranoia will plague you throughout the hours of the night, gone only when the sun finally rises and your eyes red and heavy from sleep deprivation.
Such are the symptoms that hunt the sufferers of social-anxiety.
Unlike depression, however, I may have somewhat overcome social-anxiety. At least to a certain degree. I can now make friends, have tangled a bit with romantic relationships, can look at authority figures in the eye, et cetera. I still get the shivers when I have to walk up on stage, but even extroverts have to endure that nervousness as well. Judging from these aspects, I assume that I am ‘cured,’ or at least improving. There is no easy way to reach this step, one of general improvement. To say that there was a wall of granite blocking my way would be an understatement. But I have, with copious luck, and the permission of circumstance.
Recall that I was, from a subjective pair of eyes, witnessed the abuses my sisters committed on each other and suffered a few of them myself. To save readers from the gruesome details, I’ll make the description of how the whole situation resolved as plainly as possible. I grew bigger, both physically and mentally. I learned how to fight back, and thus used the weapons they once bared at me back against them. This is not something I am proud of, but it is the beginning of how I managed to suppress my anxiety.
Behind my issue—and perhaps that of others’ as well—lies easily traced back roots. All I had to do was locate and tear them from the ground they were in. Suddenly, I found myself empowered, confident, unafraid of whatever the world would throw at me. How could anything be worse than my siblings? I was gravely wrong, of course, life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” and numerous problems continued to surface time and again. Yet such a fact does not necessarily mean all my struggles were meant for nothing.
I fought and I survived. I’ve gained new talents and removed the shackles that were chained upon me by social-anxiety; it was like inhaling a lungful of air after being dragged down by waves upon waves of seawater. For better or for worse, and though the means by which I reached this point in my life may not be justifiable, I am happier than when I was a powerless little boy.
Social-anxiety is a complex disorder. One that an amateur in the field of psychology cannot easily describe or analyze. This article should not be taken as authoritative, rather a personal recollection of how the pathology acts upon the human mind, how it came to be in my life, and how was finally eliminated. To those suffering from the same thing, the only advice I can give you is to “cut off the head of the snake.” Find out why you are in the the miserable state you are in, and deal with the issue’s foundations however you see fit—without the employment of violence, if possible. Weakness is not permanent, it is a temporary condition which can be beaten with wisdom, strength, and a healthy dose of luck.