We all need moments of solitude, but people are primarily social creatures. Connecting with others gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, and helps us make our way in the world.
That’s why social anxiety can be so devastating—it injures our ability to connect.
Sometimes known as “social phobia,” this affliction can turn an otherwise ordinary social interaction into a humiliating experience. It starts as a worry and a loss for words. Then it builds to a panic. Over time, it develops into a deep sense of inferiority.
Writer and editor Jazmin Cybulski has struggled with social anxiety for most of her life. She describes feeling distant in social situations for reasons beyond her control. During bouts of social anxiety, her usual facility for language escapes her. Sometimes it strikes when she’s one-on-one with a person she admires. Other times, it hits when she’s in a room full of people.
“It’s like there’s a disconnect between my brain’s ability to cope with whatever situation is happening and my desire to be fully engaged in the situation,” Cybulski said. “I want to be there, but my brain won’t let me fully be there.”
Shaun Walker, creative director and co-founder of a marketing and PR agency, has suffered from social anxiety since he was a teen. An introverted individual from a family of extroverts, Walker says he feels like there’s something wrong with him, but he’s not sure how to fix it.
“I’ve seen a psychologist for this and now take prescriptions, which helps with the anxiety, but I still feel at times disappointed in myself in social scenes,” he said. “I want to talk more; I do. But I just don’t. I don’t know what to say or am held back from previous experiences.”
These are common themes according to Jonathan Berent, a clinical social worker and therapist from Great Neck, New York, who has devoted the past 40 years to understanding and treating social anxiety. Berent has written three books on the subject, and has had consistent clinical success with helping clients deal with social anxiety.
“It’s very rewarding when you can help people like this because there are profoundly positive things that can happen,” he said.
An Affliction of Avoidance
Low self-esteem and a sense of missing out can haunt those with social anxiety, but freeing oneself from this mindset can seem like an impossible task. The impulse to avoid social situations is strengthened by a feeling of defectiveness, resulting from uncontrollably weird or stilted behavior in the presence of others, feeding a vicious cycle.
To cope with the pain of being around people, social anxiety sufferers often develop a knack for numbing themselves to the outside world. That’s why Berent calls it “the disease of resistance.”
“As a defense mechanism, sufferers learn to disconnect from thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety. This detachment leads to avoidance and repressed emotion, which recycles negatively,” Berent said.
Social anxiety is estimated to impact as much as 7 percent of the population, but the actual number may be much larger. Experts believe that many cases go undiagnosed because sufferers are too embarrassed to seek help.
One form of social anxiety that most people can relate to is the fear of public speaking. We become more self-conscious when a crowd is focused on our speech and appearance. Now imagine if you always felt under the spotlight—your every word and action subject to intense public scrutiny.
Often confused with shyness, social anxiety isn’t about having a quiet or timid disposition, but rather a constant fear of ridicule and rejection. It’s thinking too much about what to say to avoid looking foolish, and looking more foolish in the process.
For some, classic symptoms of embarrassment—such as blushing, stammering, and sweating—flare up. Quirks and flaws seem to magnify in the presence of people, the mind goes blank, and self-esteem shrivels.
There are no data available to show a rise in social anxiety, but therapists report seeing more people who struggle with it in recent years. Cybulski believes the cultural pressure to be perfect plays a big role.
“We all are told to be the best in everything, but no one is perfect, and that expectation is crippling to a lot of people,” she said. “This extends to social situations. We don’t want to be seen as failing at being perfect at sociability, but that fear of failure causes us to fail anyway.”
Side Effects of Technology
In a society that emphasizes competition, increased productivity, and perfect performance, social anxiety follows along.
Technology perpetuates this affliction as our convenient gadgets keep unwanted human contact at a comfortable distance.