I was in the fourth grade the first time I can remember experiencing anything beyond what would be considered normal, ordinary shyness. I don’t remember much about the fourth grade, really, but I remember this moment well.
It was in a music class, and everyone had prepared a poster to aid a presentation of their favourite artist or band. I don’t remember exactly what was on my poster, or what it even looked like, but I do remember I had one prepared. I was sitting at my desk, listening to another student present, waiting for my turn. I happened to be next, and I was going over my introduction in my head, when suddenly I felt this horrible sensation of dread. It came slowly at first, but then it started to grow in intensity the longer I sat at my desk. All sorts of thoughts, very negative, began swirling around in my brain. I remember a major fear I felt was that everyone would judge me for who I chose as my favourite artist. I could feel my face burning, even though absolutely no one was paying any attention to me whatsoever. My skin felt itchy and prickly, my heart began to race, my vision was going blurry and everything inside of me was screaming to get out of that room.
Somewhere during my internal turmoil, the presentation had ended and the teacher was calling for me to get up for my turn. I felt frozen to the spot, and my throat felt tight, and I wasn’t even sure that I could speak or move. It was very uncomfortable and terrifying. Still overwhelmed with the need to escape the situation, somehow I managed to croak out that I needed to use the washroom. I practically fled the classroom, hid inside the bathroom for the entire period, and didn’t come out until another student came looking for me to tell me that the class had ended, and our homeroom teacher had returned to start another lesson.
It would be another eight or nine years before I would learn that I wasn’t just shy, that it wasn’t just a phase, and that it would be something I would struggle with for a very long time.
Having Social Anxiety disorder isn’t the same as being shy. I can’t recall the number of times I have heard people say to me things like, “I totally understand. I get shy sometimes too before presentations,” or, “I get shy in some situations too. You’ll get past it.” I understand that these people are trying to relate, and they really are trying to be helpful, but to me, these comments quickly become tiring. My anxiety doesn’t go away with the more presentations I give, or with the more people I meet. A simple way to sum up my disorder is to say that I am scared of people. That is a simple way, but like almost everything else in life, it is a little more complicated than that.
For people with Social Anxiety, certain situations trigger very uncomfortable symptoms, such as those I experienced in the fourth grade, like the blurry vision, the inability to really speak, and racing negative thoughts. Have you ever experienced that extremely intense, uncomfortable, overwhelming sensation of dread when you have either just been caught in a lie, or had a scare? That is kind of what it feels like to me when I am in the midst of a panic attack from my Social Anxiety.
Over the years, I have learned what my Social Anxiety triggers are, and I have taken as many precautions as I can to either avoid them or prepare myself for them in advance if they happened to be unavoidable. People with Social Anxiety might be triggered in some social situations, but not others. My personal “social situations” that trigger me include: talking on the phone, talking to people in uniform, talking to an authority figure, being without a “safe person” near strangers, exercising in front of others, performing in front of others, speaking up in class, entering a room that is already full, giving presentations, being in a job interview, and being assertive.
Authority figures can include teachers, doctors, and parents of my friends. Now imagine you are an authority figure and you try to talk to me. Depending on whether or not I have taken my medication, if it is working, and if I have mentally prepared myself for this interaction, you might encounter a cheerful, friendly young girl – or I might just stand there, not look you in the eye, blushing and stammering or not speaking, and I might be unable to move or speak at all. Basically my brain might feel as if it is shutting down and I won’t be able to think clearly.
As you can probably imagine, especially before I knew my triggers or that I even had Social Anxiety, my anxiety would accompany me in a lot of awkward and cringe-worthy situations. But I will save those for another post.