Most people won’t realise this of me. Or they might have guessed but chose not to say anything. Either way, it makes no odds. For as long as I can recall, I have been suffering from Social Anxiety. A very personal illness that although seemingly trivial, has had a profound impact on my life thus far.

It’s human nature to socialise. It should therefore be easy, right? Wrong. The very notion of socialising — getting together informally to talk to a person or groups of people, is petrifying. So much so, that often people will suffer from panic attacks, or be sick, or clam up, etc. In my case, I have panic attacks. My heart rate quickens, and I start to panic. Often, all feeling goes in my arm and legs and I go very tense. It might not happen all at the same time. But it isn’t nice by anymeans. Usually those symptoms kick in for me at the very thought of having to go out and socialise. But actually that isn’t as bad as it sounds; not nearly as bad as the sickening-dread feeling that accumulates in my stomach. I’m sure it’s quite common? That intense sinking feeling in one’s stomach? This is worse. And will remain constant for hours or days, until such time that I know the social event is approaching… and then I panic.

Four years ago (2001), I started University. I was scared of course. I knew something was wrong even before moving out of home. I had lived a very sheltered life, in retrospect. I moved around a lot during my childhood. I was always (and still am) shy, and it takes a lot of effort and courage to be able to talk to people — but even more so if they’re my own age. The idea that one is being judged, and ridiculed, and that they’re a failure in the eyes of the person they’re speaking to is a common worry of people with Social Anxiety. It’s a negative feedback loop that’s very difficult to break out of. And in many ways, it’s silly. One knows that one isn’t being judged, or watched – and yet despite that, it just helps to augment the very idea. Completely irrational.

But to go back to University — it has been an experience. It’s not even over yet, and the worst is still yet to come. But being at University, and dealing (or trying to) with Social Anxiety has been very hard. Impossible, at times. One thing I have not done yet (I still might not) is tell any of my classmates. By revealing it, it exploits a weakness about myself, and that’s not what I want. To show weakness like that, is to only add to the negative feedback loop, and I wouldn’t be able to deal with that [1]. One faces social situations all the time. Just walking from lecture room to lecture room is horrible. There’s always the chance of bumping into someone one knows, or being accosted in the corridor. Perhaps the worst thing of all is being in a lecture or seminar. Again, there’s an inferiority complex with lecturer <–> student, in that I find people with authority very intimidating.

My own solution to this was to therefore stop going to University. Perfect. Not. I found that to be a bad bad thing to do. It’s self-isolating which only adds to the pressure that Social Anxiety brings. No one wants to feel alone, yet that’s how things will end up if it continues in that pattern. What’s also interesting is that people start to notice and ask questions…

My housemates soon gave up on me, of course. And I can’t blame them for it. Everytime they asked me if I wanted to go out, I would reply: ‘no’ - usually. Soon, they stopped asking me. Although I would go to all sorts of lengths to ensure that I was otherwise indisposed to answer their question — everything from feining sleep, to being on the telephone. But there was another horribe side-effect. I could not say ‘no’ at the time, but rather I would answer ‘yes’. I felt that if I said no, then it was rude. But this only fuelled my own feedback loop, as I would then deliberately stay at University until Midnight, just so I could avoid having to go out.

I only looked into Social Anxiety last year — and it was only then that I were able to put a name to this… illness. That was such a relief to be able to do that. I had always assumed up until then that it was me; that I was somehow being silly. As soon as I realised this was a real and very much known-about issue, I made provisions to to and speak to my lecturer. I have to say that if I hadn’t have done so, I would not be feeling just the slightest bit better…

Of course, people react to you in different ways over it. Clearly you’re not likely to go up to them and say something like: “Hi, I’m suffering from social anxiety”. This would be both pointless and something one with SA is unlikely to do anyway. But often people sometimes sense when people are supposedly acting shy, or are staring at the ground. And whilst as the suffer, we’re very conscious of that fact, it’s often heightened only because we are aware of it ourselves.

If it just so happens you’re talking to someone one-on-one, then it might be slightly apparent, but unlikely. Conversational patterns are such that the self-imposed perception of ourselves is often far greater when engaged in conversation, than it is from the point of view from the other person. When more people are involved within a conversation, the effect diminishes.

It’s all very well me sat here churning out a whole load of babble. I know that these fears are irrational. Logic dictates that I ought to therefore be able to ignore it all, and get on with things as though they were normal — but I can’t.

Mark Udall (I’m sure he won’t mind my mentioning his name), a lecturer who teaches me on my course, has been marvellous, understanding, and supportive towards me. He’s helped me in a number of ways to deal with my Social Anxiety – both generally, and academically. The one drawback of Social Anxiety is that it had an impact on my work. But this, thanks to Mark has been corrected. In fact, something Mark and I do, is meet informally once a week for coffee. Whilst this is seemingly a “normal” thing to do, for me it is not. But in so doing (and although it still fills me with anxiety) it is one of the biggest offers of help. Just doing that — the social interaction with someone, and the fact that I make smalltalk, is great. That’s one of the things I cannot do, and find very diffcult, is starting and managing a conversation where there is no pre-defined context.

I am by no means better than I was four years ago. Things are more managable, yes. But that’s thanks to some very kind people whom have helped me. I would say that if anyone can relate to this, to consider seeing a doctor or a GP. There’s a wealth of information they can give you regarding this form of anxiety – athough be aware that some aren’t as perceptive towards it as others.

The other limitation of Social Anxiety is depression. Because Social Anxiety is such a self-isolating condition, it’s no wonder many people develop depression as a result. Unfortunately, I have. Nothing too bad, but enough to make me feel pretty low. So making sure your GP is informed, is important.

I gave a link at the top of this page that directed people to the main Social Anxiety portal for those in the UK – on that page you’ll see a link to discussion forums, and chatrooms. I encourage anyone who can relate to this to have a look – the resourcefulness and support of others there is amazing. Don’t suffer alone. That’ll make things worse. If anyone wants to get in contact with me, they can do, via e-mail.

– Thomas Adam, Thursday 20th October 2005

[1] It’s fine for people to read this – it’s facing them in person that makes it all the harder.