Anxiety served a useful evolutionary purpose back when a nascent humanity was dwelling out on the Savannah. Fear, fright, being scared would keep the mind alert to big predators, making it less likely you would be prey to the mouths of snakes, giant cats and demons. The strong beget their genes and humanity evolved to meet the manifold threats of the wild. But in modern times, the risks we face are considerably diminished, with the evolution of medicine and society making the world less fatal and more peaceful than the brutish, nasty and short life of past times.
Nevertheless, the evolution of our brains has hard-wired us to anxious responses, and a world filled with sensory overstimulation sends our minds in to overload.
A low-level of anxiety may be actually a healthy stimulus in some scenarios, like a week before your essay is due, but beyond a tipping point it becomes a mental disorder with a debilitating impact on people’s lives. Social Anxiety, also known as Social Phobia, is one subset of anxiety disorder in which anxiety is specifically triggered by social interactions (or the thought of them.) The condition can ravage self-esteem and have a negative effect on inter-personal relationships, school and work. It is a condition I struggle with myself and its symptoms manifest in a number of ways:
1. Avoiding social situations
If you have Social Anxiety then the idea of social events will usually fill you with dread and the urge to flee. Sometimes I have spent 40 minutes walking to campus and have gotten to the door of a lecture before becoming anxious, turning around and going home again. Other times I have been really keen to participate in events on campus but have stayed away because the thought of being exposed to so many people provokes fear.
2. Not talking
The most problematic symptom I have when I am in social situations is not being able to communicate. In large and small gatherings I am simply too scared to speak, unless I know someone very well. Understandably this is a deeply frustrating thing to go through. Often I am thinking of many things to share or say, but I feel incapable of saying them aloud as the overwhelming feeling of anxiety fills my mouth with treacle. This becomes a vicious spiral, as a creeping self-consciousness about being quiet creates more anxiety, which in turn makes speaking more difficult again. I have found this exerts an unhealthy pressure on friendships. Though there are plenty of people who understand and who empathize with my silence, having had similar experiences themselves, sometimes people think that I am being off with them. Friends have suggested my quietness makes them feel awkward, though they have eventually learned I don’t mean it to be rude.
3. Hair pulling
In periods when you are suffering with high anxiety levels it turns you in to a walking bag of frayed, neurotic nerves. It is understandable that people look for ways to release anxiety. Making repeated, unconscious gestures to release the tension and frustration of anxiety is another symptom of the disorder. Some people scratch or bite, but I pull my hair. It starts unconsciously, as my anxiety levels are rising. It can be strangely relaxing as the rhythmic, repeated motion takes your mind off consciousness of anxiety and pressure.
4. Physical Symptoms
As well as psychosomatic symptoms anxiety provokes a range of physical reactions. Palpitations, dizzyness, hotness, nausea and – rarely – blackouts, are all things I experience.
So what can you do if you suffer Social Phobia?
If you suspect you experience Social Phobia but haven’t received any help, consider speaking to your doctor who will be able to help you. You could also consider mindfulness techniques. They have been around a long time but interest is undergoing a recent renaissance in clinical approaches to treating mental disorder, with different exercises being promoted to aid relaxation and recovery from anxiety attacks. Different exercises, therapies and guided meditations are freely available on the internet.