Tina gets anxious when she explains to people what her job is. She’s a music journalist, and people never understand what that means. She knows they will ask her questions and look at her a bit funny. When her anxiety kicks in, she feels like she is no longer a part of this world — like everyone else exists but she is simply not there.
Rae’s social anxiety is more severe. Once, at a concert, she had a panic attack because of all the people around her. She was on the verge of tears and wanted to leave. Thankfully, her boyfriend shielded her from the crowd and hugged her until her fear subsided. Today, she has a tattoo of a woman in the shape of a tree. It reminds her that she can weather any storm of anxiety and will not break.
Ozzy thought social anxiety was always extreme like Rae’s. For the longest time, he didn’t realize he had mild social anxiety. He “freaks out mentally” when he has to interact with people he doesn’t know well. Making eye contact is a big deal, so he “avoids it like the plague.”
What Is Social Anxiety?
Many introverts like Tina, Rae, and Ozzy suffer from some form of social anxiety. However, it’s important to point out that introversion and social anxiety are not the same thing. Introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Introversion is likely a temperament you were born with, and it’s completely healthy.
Social anxiety is when you worry so much about being judged by others that it gets in the way of living your life. Although there is some evidence that anxiety is also genetic, for many people, it can be managed through cognitive behavioral therapy and a healthy lifestyle (more about that later). In the U.S., about 1 in 8 adults experience social anxiety in their lifetime.
However, because introverts tend to spend a lot of time alone, people often misinterpret this behavior as social anxiety, says Tiffany Chi of Joyable, an online social anxiety program. In reality, if an introvert decides to attend a party or strike up a conversation with a stranger, they may not feel nervous at all. You can be an introvert and socially anxious, but you can also be an introvert and not socially anxious. You can even be a socially anxious extrovert.
One thing’s for sure: Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, social anxiety can be excruciating.
What Introverts with Social Anxiety Wish You Knew
If you have social anxiety, you know the struggle is real. I asked members of the Introvert, Dear Facebook group what they wished other people understood about their anxiety. Here is what they said:
- “I’m not trying to be stuck up or disrespectful when I decline to go to your event.”
- “If I’m at your event, you are special to me because being an introvert and having social anxiety, I choose my battles.”
- “I am actually a very nice person and not closed off, rude, or mean. I am the complete opposite, but because I struggle with social anxiety, I seem awkward and disinterested. I wish people knew that I have so many thoughts going through my head when I am in a social setting. I worry about people liking me and if I am ‘good enough.’”
- “My social anxiety isn’t a self-esteem issue.”
- “Many of us wear poker faces and masks to get through social situations. I wish people knew how tiring that is.”
- “You can enjoy interacting with people on one level but still have it be uncomfortable and unpleasant at the same time.”
- “I’m okay talking to only one or two people. But, if our group becomes larger, I’m uncomfortable being singled out to contribute to the conversation. If you draw attention to me, I freeze up, stumble, and search for the right words. Inside I just want to die.”
- “I wish people would realize that ‘Nurse Me’ is not the same as ‘Off-Duty Me.’ Nurse Me has a task, a job, a niche. She is an almost entirely separate persona. At work, I greet and dose over 100 patients every day. The thought of dealing with that many people as Off-Duty Me makes me panic.”
- “If we make plans to spend time together, don’t show up with other people, especially not without asking me first. I will shut down.”
- “I wish people (especially my parents) understood that I don’t avoid people because I’m antisocial. I bring books to social events so I can hide. Likewise, I’m not ignoring you when I have my headphones in. Books and headphones are coping mechanisms that help me avoid a public panic attack.”
- “Social anxiety doesn’t always equate with quietness or shyness. I tend to overcompensate by participating—and it comes out all awkward. I abhor the idea of being misunderstood or misjudged, so I explain further and it becomes overwhelming, frustrating, and humiliating. I never leave a social situation without regretting something I said.”
- “It’s not a choice to have anxiety. Telling me, calm down, don’t worry about it, don’t stress, doesn’t help at all. It only shows me that you aren’t taking my anxiety seriously. Anxiety is real, and panic attacks are terribly embarrassing and scary.”
- “I wish I could tell others about my social anxiety but I haven’t. If I break plans last-minute because ‘I’m not feeling well,’ it means I’m pretty much frozen in fear on the bed and can’t manage enough to gather the strength to overcome this anxiety.”
- “I wish other people knew that social anxiety is not a switch that can be turned on and off with willpower.”
Is There Help for Social Anxiety?
Let’s face it, anxiety feels awful. Your palms might sweat, your heart might beat wildly, and you might feel nauseous and even dizzy. You may think, this is how my life will always be.
Sadly, many people don’t get help for their social anxiety because they mislabel it as introversion, says Chi. They see introversion as a fixed personality trait, so they think being anxious is just who they are.
But there’s good news. There are things you can do to manage — and possibly completely cure — your social anxiety:
- Invest in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). According to the Social Anxiety Institute, CBT has been the only type of therapy proven effective in permanently alleviating anxiety disorders. CBT is “exposure” therapy; you gradually put yourself in situations that make you anxious in order to overcome your fear of them. For example, if you wanted to get over your fear of giving presentations, you might start by telling a story to a group of friends, then use your new-found confidence to tackle more difficult situations. Joyable offers online, coach-supported CBT.
- Challenge your anxious thoughts. Everyone has an inner monologue of thoughts that affects their mood and energy. Tune in to those thoughts and start identifying the negative ones. Often, anxious people fall into a pattern called “fortune-telling,” which is when we predict the future (often expecting a negative consequence) even though we have no real evidence that the negative consequence will come true, says Chi. You might challenge your negative thoughts by thinking of all the past times you’ve done something and it’s gone well. For example, instead of: “This lunch will be a disaster. I’ll have nothing to talk about and no one will like me,” try a more realistic correction: “I usually make a good impression. Even if it doesn’t go perfectly, we’ll still take care of business and that’s what people will remember.” CBT can help you learn to challenge anxious thoughts.
- Lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety, so make sure to get 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Prioritize sleep over watching one more episode of your favorite Netflix show. Stick to a sleep schedule and create a comforting bedtime ritual. Avoid alcohol, big meals, and screen time before bed.
- Find time to exercise every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Exercise lowers your stress levels, improves your mood, and has the added bonus of improving your health.
If you’re someone who battles social anxiety, know that there are other people out there who struggle like you do. Take baby steps to make your life a little better today than it was yesterday — and celebrate each accomplishment, no matter how “small.” But above all, be kind to yourself.