Is social anxiety a disease?

When I first heard the term “social anxiety” used in a mental illness context, I was scornful. I didn’t consider social anxiety a disease, or something innate and incontrollable. I was so used to dealing with it, that when I heard people claiming they were suffering from mental illness, rather than just admitting that they were weak, shy, and awkward, I felt indignant. I suppose the idea that there could be some unchangeable part of me outside my own control was frightening.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you’ll know that I struggled with extreme social issues last year. My “anxiety” got so bad that I barely left my room; I feared small talk and looking anyone in the eye; I would get up early so I could sneak down to the cafeteria, grab food, and then steal away back to my room without being seen. I sat alone in every class and made no friends. I lived my life ruled by fear—fear of losing my anonymity, of being judged, of being humiliated.

 

This year, I came back with a new attitude—a determined, daring attitude to break my old habits and “put myself out there.” I’ve found that I’ve had to put in so much effort to go against my natural habit, yet I know that those innate tendencies are not trustworthy. Though I lean towards solitude and quietness, I know that I need people in my life. As much as I wish I could, I can’t be happy without friends and companions to talk to. It’s been going well, but today I had a bit of a relapse—which is what prompted me to write this blog.

As part of the “new me,” I forced myself to join a club this year—the running club. I can only go three days a week because of my job, but so far I’ve gone to nearly every practice that I could. It is stressful, and I haven’t made too many friends, but I’ve made a few. And in reality, it’s just five to ten minutes of socializing, plus the run. But I make myself go, no matter how much I don’t want to, and it always pays off.

Tonight, the club had a bonfire party at one of the team members’ house. I’ve had the idea stewing in my mind all week, and today I was especially anxious about it. I didn’t commit to going, but all day I’ve been quietly freaking out about it. I wanted to go, I really did. There are about three friends I’m sure are there. But when it came down to the actual getting ready and leaving, I just couldn’t do it. I know it would most likely end up being fine. But I’m just so scared that I’ll get there and I won’t find anyone to talk to and it’ll be awkward and uncomfortable, and I’ll wish I was back home. The decision not to go came from a weak mindset; if I had been in a better mood, maybe I could’ve done it. But I couldn’t.

And I’ve gone through so much stress all week long to not even go. Isn’t that unfortunate? I often imagine what it’d be like to be a person who doesn’t give a second thought to social situations—who just shows up to things without a worry in the world, who doesn’t devote hours of anxiety to something as simple as lunch with a friend. How different life would be!

At points of weakness like these, I feel as though my life is ruled by fear. Every decision I make hinges on whether or not the social situation will be threatening. Other factors don’t mean a thing. And I hate that—I feel so out of control. “Social anxiety” keeps me from doing things I want to do, even though I know better. Last year, I was very negative and saw people as scary, mean, and shallow, but this year I know better; I know that people are inherently good, kind, and welcoming. The running club certainly is. Yet the anxiety predominates this, and gets the better of my wisdom. Is that what defines mental illness? It conquers even your rationality?

I would conclude that social anxiety could be considered a true medical illness when it gets to the point that you’re so immersed in it that it consumes your life. Right now, though I give a significant amount of energy to anxiety, it doesn’t dominate my existence. Last year, it did…my every action was governed by that fear of being exposed. And like any illness, anxiety is a wave, with highs and lows, relapses and remissions. When your body/mind is strong, the effects are lessened; when you are weak (like I was tonight), the disease worms its way back in.

There is a lot of stigma around the word “social anxiety” nowadays; like I said, even I was critical of it. I do think people blow it out of proportion, and that, like with depression, increased attention to the issue possibly makes it worse. And to be honest, it doesn’t really make me feel better to know that other people struggle with this too—because in the moment, it doesn’t matter. Knowing that other people fear going out doesn’t make it any easier for me to do so. But I suppose recognizing and treating it as an illness is helpful…it makes it a little easier on myself to conceive of the anxiety as something foreign thrown upon me, rather than a flaw in my character. Because it does often feel that way—like I don’t know how to act like a normal person. Like I am forever exiled from society because I can’t interact in a normal way. But viewing it like an illness takes some of that guilt and pressure away.

Well, that was long and scattered…I just wanted to get down some thoughts about social anxiety. If you struggle with this too, hang in there—it’ll get better. The worst of it won’t last forever. Hope you found this interesting, helpful, or amusing, or even irritating—anything’s better than nothing! Thanks for readingJ

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