Social anxiety: The fear that ruins marriage, career and holidays
A workplace with ‘slagging’ going on can be a torment to a person with social anxiety
When I used to go to Lawlor’s ballroom in Naas, the walk across the floor to ask for a dance seemed interminable.
In my memory the dancefloor is so wide it almost disappears into the distance. No doubt if I could go back in time, but as I am now, I would be surprised at how short the distance really was. It was shyness that made it feel like a mile.
Shyness is painfully bad enough but its toxic cousin, social fear or social anxiety, can be disabling in many aspects of a person’s life.
I was reminded of this when reading Understanding and Healing the Hurts of Childhood, the latest book by Dr Jim O’Shea, a Thurles-based counsellor and former school principal. (His first book, When a Child Dies, based on personal experience, is worth reading by anybody going through this terrible experience.)
I might have found the walk across the dance floor terrifying and asking for a date excruciating but at least I managed to push myself to do it. I had a rule that I had to ask three girls to dance in any one night before I could go home.
That’s shyness but social anxiety can make even that feel impossible creating, in Dr O’Shea’s words, “an almost impenetrable boundary to forming a relationship”. He adds, and I think this is rather sad, “research shows that those with social fear are less likely to get married, or do so later in life”.
A workplace with lots of “slagging” going on could be a torment to a person with social anxiety. Another person might find a holiday, with its necessary encounters with strangers, a challenge. Going to your doctor when you are feeling unwell might seem like an impossible task because of what you think the doctor will think of you, and the doctor’s receptionist and all the people sitting in the waiting room.
Because we are surrounded today by allegedly beautiful people on TV and social media and in magazines – the Love Island phenomenon – social anxiety might be on the increase.
It might be helpful to anybody suffering from this affliction to understand that it often applies in some situations and not in others. You might find it easier to talk to 500 people than to five, or vice versa. Another person might have a huge social anxiety about being judged and so they might never apply for a promotion because clearly some kind of judgment is going to be made in the process.
I would agree with Dr O’Shea that exposure to what you are afraid of is the key action to take to reduce social anxiety.
“A little and often” is a good principle to apply, like my rule about asking at least three girls to dance before I could get out of there and go home.
So don’t try to fix everything in one day. If you are afraid to walk down the main street because you think everybody is looking at you, at least walk halfway down the street and increase the distance over a few attempts on subsequent days.
It’s helpful to understand that shyness and anxiety don’t just exist in the mind; they are also in the body. After all, your body tenses up, your heart starts thumping and adrenaline pumps through you when you go into these situations – all physical events. As you gradually expose yourself to situations and survive them, your physical body gradually learns to calm down.
And don’t make the classic mistake of comparing yourself to the most uninhibited person in the room. If you must compare, choose the average person in the room.
Finally, remember that not everybody knows you’re shy, and that lots of people see shyness as a sign of intellectual depth. Still waters run deep, and all that. Indeed, many very outgoing people find shyness attractive in others.
Dr O’Shea’s website is jimoshea.net
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. Twitter: @PadraigOMorain