You know that feeling of anxiety before you’re about to speak in front of a crowd? That feeling where your chest feels tight and your palms get sweaty as you continuously read over your lines? That’s what having social anxiety disorder feels like. Except not only do you get anxious immediately before having to do something, but sometimes months before. And for no particular reason.
My social anxiety compels me to plan how things will go ahead of time. Sometimes I plan out a future conversation or worry about how I will enter a room without embarrassing myself. It may sound absurd, and I wouldn’t disagree, yet for a long time I couldn’t stop these feelings.
Social anxiety interfered with my life. I was afraid to walk down the hallways at school. How am I walking? Too slow? Too fast? Where should I put my hands? Do they look awkward by my sides?
I also would pause before entering a room full of people because I was afraid they would stare at me. I needed to prepare something to say or somewhere to sit once I entered to avoid awkwardness.
I couldn’t talk to people on the phone either. I feared that if I spoke in a certain tone, I would come off as rude or uninterested.
I was worried to eat in front of others. I was scared that I would be judged, even if I chewed with my mouth closed and didn’t slurp my soup. I had a constant fear of judgment.
Often, my mom would ask if I wanted to go to the mall and, without a second thought, I’d say no. I was scared of running into people I knew or simply embarrassing myself in front of strangers. I felt like I had to walk, talk, eat, and speak a certain way.
My rational self knew it didn’t matter. It was unlikely that anyone would pay enough attention to me to judge me. But I feared not knowing. It’s like that tippy-toe feeling, just waiting for something to happen even if you doubt it will.
In my freshman year of high school, my social anxiety grew worse. My math teacher would randomly call on students to answer questions, and if they didn’t give the correct response, she would bully them by rolling her eyes or saying something like “How do you not know this?” She never ridiculed me as much as some of the other students, but the possibility frightened me. I asked to switch to her first-period class in order to get it over with. That made me less anxious because I had less time to anticipate her class. But this schedule change only temporarily solved the problem. If I was put in a scenario similar to this in the future, I might not be able to escape it.
I have recognized that it is more important to overcome anxiety than avoid it. And I have been making steps toward recovery, but it’s a process that takes years of practice and, for me, therapy and medication.
Living with social anxiety disorder isn’t easy. It affects every aspect of my life, and like most other issues, it interferes with my daily living. But my anxiety is only one part of who I am. I have fully accepted my disorder, and I focus on encouraging others to educate themselves about mental illnesses and find confidence in themselves.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.