What is Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder is an emotional virus which, like other personality disorders, can lay dormant for years before materializing. You were most likely infected during adolescence and the disorder lingered in your system for years or decades before making itself known. Any number of situations or events could have triggered the initial contact; it might be hereditary, the result of some traumatic experience, and/or environmental. You could have been subject to bullying or a broken home. Perhaps your parents were overprotective or controlling, or unable to provide emotional validation.
Social anxiety shares some commonalities with general anxiety disorder (GAD) and, in fact, both may occur together. Feeling anxious or nervous in certain situations is normal and not indicative of a personality disorder. Most individuals worry when speaking in front of a group of people, and anxious when pulled over on the freeway. A “normal” person recognizes the ordinariness of a situation and gives it appropriate attention. Persons with SAD experience excessive or disproportionate anxiety, dramatize it, catastrophize it. In other words, they fixate on the worst-case scenario.
SAD is sustained by irrational thoughts and actions motivated by negative self-evaluation, and fear of social and individual rejection. Either of these conditions increases the probability of that a person may experience depression or other anxiety disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder; obsessive-compulsive disorder) as well as issues of motivation and self-esteem.
Statistics estimate the contagion rate of SAD falls between seventeen and twenty percent of the U.S. adult population. LGBTQ numbers are almost twice that. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 9.1% of adolescents (ages 10 to 19) experience Social Anxiety Disorder, and 1.3% have severe impairment. These statistics are fluid, however. A high percentage of persons who experience SAD are either unaware or don’t tell anyone, and most remain ignorant of its diagnosis. Fifteen million U.S. adults experience the disorder.
The logical reaction to mental or physical impairment is to seek awareness and treatment. The commitment-to-remedy rate for those experiencing social anxiety is less than 6%! This statistic is reflective of symptoms which manifest perceptions of worthlessness and futility. The prevailing symptoms of SAD support the individual’s reluctance to seek help. Resistance to new ideas and concepts and fears of criticism and rejection often pale in comparison to the shame that accompanies this disorder.
The superficial overview of SAD is intense apprehension—the fear of being judged, negatively evaluated or rejected in social situations. The overriding characteristic of SAD is acute feelings of incompetence and worthlessness. SAD sustains itself through repression and intractability, and by imposing irrational thought and action. Its dominance is strengthened by anger, mistrust, agitation, frustration, and self-denigration. Perceptions of personal attractiveness, intelligence, competence, and so on, become distorted and unsound.
The SAD individual meticulously avoids situations that might trigger discomfort. Multiple symptoms produce feelings of futility and unworthiness, and the delusion of incompetence is expressed by profound and debilitating shame. A person with social anxiety disorder experiences symptoms of anxiety or fear in social situations—dating, interviewing for a position, answering a question in class, dealing with authority, and so on. Functioning in perfunctory situations on an interpersonal level—eating or front of others, riding a bus, using a public restroom—can cause undue stress and apprehension to the socially anxious individual. In a nutshell, the SAD individual is afraid that he or she will be humiliated, judged, and rejected.
The fear that manifests in social situations is so fierce, many conclude it’s beyond their ability to control it, which manifests in perceptions of incompetence and futility. These negative evaluations interfere with the desire to pursue a goal, attend school, or do anything that might trigger anxiety. Often, the SAD individual worries about things for weeks before the actual occurrence. Invariably, they will avoid places or events or situations where there is the potential for embarrassment or ridicule.
Director Mullen likes to tell the story of his “amoral lifestyle before he began to address SAD’s malicious dominance over every aspect of his life. “In my twenties and thirties, there was no such thing as SAD; it appeared in the DSM-IV in 1994. Due to my errant behavior, I was told I wouldn’t amount to anything. No matter the situation or circumstance, I was the outsider who didn’t fit in. I had no identity except as someone who took advantage, and no goal beyond self-aggrandizement. I relied on alcohol and pharmaceuticals as mind-numbing alternatives to facing my social ineptitude. I would go to extreme lengths to blind myself to my Condition. I consulted with psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health experts. I attended multiple self-help seminars. I was diagnosed with some form of depression or other personality disorder. Others saw me as shiftless, lazy, opportunistic, amoral, a freeloader—the list goes on.”
The key to SAD’s success is its uncanny ability to detect weakness, to instinctively sense vulnerability. It swoops in to fill the void, taking control, telling us how to think and act. SAD is the like the man who comes to dinner and stays indefinitely. He feeds off his host’s irrationality. He crashes on the couch, surrounded by beer cans drained of hope and potential. He monopolizes the bathroom, creating missed opportunities. He becomes the predominate fixture in the house. (He even opens the mail.) After a while, his host not only grows accustomed to having him around but forms a subordinate dependency.
In many ways, interpersonal relationships are at the heart of SAD. We find it challenging to make new friends or have any at all. Healthy relationships demand that we emerge from our protective environment and take risks—not an easy commitment for someone resistant to change. A relationship brings new ideas and concepts. We hate change. That’s where the risk factor comes in; we must take chances and be willing to lose—traits peculiar to a SAD person. SAD attacks the entire body complex, bringing intellectual confusion and irrationality, emotional instability, physical dysfunction, and spiritual malaise. Emotionally we feel melancholic, heartbroken, and useless. We are subject to unwarranted sweating and trembling, hyperventilation, nausea and cramps, lightheadedness, muscle spasms, and tension. Spiritually we perceive ourselves as unworthy, insignificant, and incapable.
You’re all familiar with the free association test. The authority-person in the white coat tosses words at you, and you respond with the first reactive word that comes to mind. So, here’s a list of responsive words: useless, incompetent, timid, ineffectual, chicken, insignificant, stupid. Has anyone used those words to describe you? Do you use any of those words to describe yourself? When you break a dish, do you blurt out the word, stupid? When you can’t figure the right driver to remove a screw, do you feel useless? When you forget to pay a bill, do you think, what an idiot? Most people toss out these pejoratives daily, but few take them to heart like the SAD individual who believes every word. These are the automatic negative thoughts (ANT’s) we’ve implanted in our neural network. They determine our initial reactions to situations or circumstances. They tell us how to think and feel and act. Our ANT voice exaggerates, catastrophizes, and distorts. It demeans us, denigrates our abilities, makes us feel inept, robs us of our dignity and self-esteem, and makes our future seem hopeless.
SAD thrives on the pessimism of our old thoughts and feelings. They’re part of our Condition, and they’re incredibly unhealthy. We must stop giving in to them.
We have a choice of how we think and react. Why choose to be bitter and angry when we can be good-natured, people ask? For the same reason, you don’t go to the opera with a throbbing toothache. Why choose to beat ourselves up? It’s a perceptual distraction from the primary pain. Of course, the best option is the right choice. The one that is kind and beneficial and makes you feel good—that’s the right choice. You are asked to choose between two on a table in front of you. One is a rusty iron trap, capable of crushing the leg of a wild animal; the other is a plate of warm brownies. The choice is simple.
Overall, we worry too much about what someone else thinks of us. In the film Bridge of Spies, Rudolf Abel, the Soviet agent faces the possibility of the death penalty. His lawyer, befuddled by Rudolf’s impassive demeanor, whispers, “Aren’t you at all worried?” The convict shrugs. “Would it help?” Everyone makes errors-in-judgment, says something inappropriate, tells a bad joke. We’re not stupid or an idiot or a jerk―we’re human!
We always feel like we are being evaluated and judged. We’re overly concerned we’re going to say or do something that will reveal our incompetence or ignorance. We walk on eggshells, conscious of every eye in the room because we feel like we’re the center of attention and everyone is judging us. Our movements are awkward, and our attempts at humor are embarrassing. We try to make conversation, but we don’t know what to say. Our mind blanks and our response is hesitant and timid, we end up having to repeat ourselves.
Many of us drink or rely on alcohol and pharmaceuticals. Substance abuse dulls the pain of our Condition, and it gives us false confidence. It disrupts our normal personality allowing us to be someone else for a while; someone who doesn’t suffer from SAD. We’re not as addicted to the substance as we are to the momentary serenity and sense of belonging.
The singular theory proven effective at outsmarting SAD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is designed to help you counter decades of wrong–thinking and false perception. Only by recognition of our inherent strength and determination can you overwhelm a lifetime of propaganda designed to keep you from that to which you’re inherently entitled. Only by commitment and practice can you reclaim what SAD has taken from you.
There is no absolute cure for Social Anxiety Disorder. Old perceptions of inadequacy and unattractiveness are indelibly ingrained into our psyche. They’re a component of who we once were and who we are today. We outsmart SAD by overwhelming it with positive affirmation, and an appreciation of our value. We reclaim the qualities that celebrate our uniqueness and rechannel our self–destructive, perspectives into pride of our individuality.
We get help.