People Describe What Social Anxiety Feels Like

You’ve probably heard of social anxiety, but unless you’re one of the 15 million people living with the disorder, you likely have no idea what it feels like to live with it. As the name implies, people with this disorder have trouble dealing with social situations, and that extends to many activities that the average person takes for granted.

Fear Rules the Roost

According to the Social Anxiety Institute, people with the disorder often describe themselves as feeling that others are watching them when they’re doing something as simple as walking down a street. Self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment are two common symptoms, so social anxiety sufferers often believe that others are staring at them in public or even peeking out at them from inside of buildings.

The fear of embarrassment leads to a desire to avoid direct contact at all costs. People with social anxiety fear smiling at others because that might entice them to say “hello,” thus forcing an interaction. Because they don’t want to look bad, those with social anxiety are afraid to have a simple conversation because they feel they might say or do something wrong.

Even celebrities with years of experience performing in front of big crowds feel the fear anew every time they get onstage or in front of the cameras again. Donny Osmond, whose anxiety started when he was performing as a child and worsened in adulthood, says, “There are times I remember before I walked on stage, where if I had the choice of walking on stage or dying, I would have chosen death.”

Tortured by Contact With Others

The fear gets worse in social situations where direct contact is unavoidable. For example, people with social anxiety say they dread the simple interaction that comes with buying groceries or grabbing lunch at a fast food place. Talking to the cashier means opening themselves up to somehow looking like a fool.

Dealing with authority figures brings up even more unpleasant feelings. Talking to the boss or having to participate in a departmental meeting at work is akin to torture because of the potential for people with social anxiety to say something that makes them look bad. Not only do they fear potential humiliation, but they also feel like their jobs are at stake. Students who suffer from the disorder fear talking to their teachers and participating in group discussions with their peers. As one man with social anxiety disorder told the Institute, “I would freeze up any time I had to meet anyone in authority.”

Anxiety Over the Phone

Social anxiety isn’t just limited to face-to-face interactions. The Social Anxiety Institute explains that people with social anxiety often feel just as frightened about talking to others on the phone. A simple task like calling a utility company with a billing questions brings on waves of fear because the person on the other end of the line might not be easy to deal with. The disorder often makes the caller feel as though he or she is a bother, even when talking to someone who is paid to deal with customer phone calls. Those with social anxiety often agonize over the conversation long after it’s over, wondering if they said something that cast them in a negative light.

One person on a society anxiety support forum was so fearful that she says she cries before making calls. She says that once she’s on the phone, “My voice starts to get shaky and I end up stuttering even before I finish one sentence. I also feel like rushing the conversation so I can disconnect as soon as I can. I don’t understand why I feel more nervous talking on the phone than when it’s a face to face conversation.”

People with social anxiety often feel isolated. They describe themselves as feeling like outcasts because they believe they’re the only ones who have these fears. They believe that no one would understand, so they find it preferable to be alone rather than risk embarrassing themselves or being stuck on the outskirts of social gatherings because they’re not comfortable with any interaction.

Symptoms Feed the Cycle

These common feelings among people with social anxiety tie directly into the disorder’s symptoms. They isolate themselves because of the difficulty of interacting with other people, and they have trouble making friends and maintaining friendships because of their fears. Often, it gets so bad that their worries manifest themselves in physical symptoms like sweating, blushing, and trembling. The physical nature of these symptoms makes them embarrassed, feeding into a cruel cycle.

Fortunately, treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-anxiety medication are effective against social anxiety. Kim Basinger, who suffered from anxiety, started off with drug therapy and was able to discontinue the medication once she got her symptoms under control. She says, “‘Now I wake up and enjoy life. I didn’t want to live on drugs. I wanted to face everything I was afraid of.”

If these descriptions of people who suffer from the disorder sound familiar to you, take this screening test on WebPsychology. If it shows you might have the disorder, talk to your doctor or a counselor about your treatment options.