by Kyra Miles
There I am, sitting on my hands between the hard plastic chair and my butt as my freshly ironed black slacks fill with static, with my legs swinging back and forth, and sweat building up in my armpits. While the overdramatic, three-time district champ gives her speech on pet peeves, I repeat, “You’re going to be fine. You’ve practiced this a million times, nobody really cares,” over and over again in my head. As Ms. Perfect finishes her flawless speech (which I might add was memorized) I hear my name. As I stand, my palms become drenched in sweat, and my breaths start becoming shorter and more frequent than before. “God I wish I was done, I can already hear that redhead bashing my dry, frizzy hair. I hope the one with perfect skin doesn’t notice the shiny, red mountain on my chin while I’m giving my speech.” I walk towards the front and I straighten out my clothes as best as possible to try and give the girls in the room one less thing to make fun of me for. I get to the front and turn around to face the rest of the room. “Has the judge always looked that mean? Did I turn my phone off? What if it goes off?” I take a deep breath and tell myself to just do it. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be done. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and slowly open my book. The first phrases come out like bees escaping a hive. The beginning of the speech is the easy part, I have that memorized, but this luxury doesn’t last much longer. Once I get to the page three of five, my hands begin to shake, and my voice starts quivering. I look up and see 18 eyeballs staring back at me, my words start slurring together and I know I’m about to lose control. I have to force myself to slow down and take a deep breath, hoping that nobody will notice. By page five, I’m home free, I can see the last line and, what seems like a lifetime later, eventually the last word. As I shut my book and look at the judge one last time, numbness washes over me like water from a shower head and I briskly walk back to my plastic chair in the very back of the room. Eight sets of eyes beam through me as I clench my black, plastic book that is the source of all this agony.
This common phenomenon of dreading public speaking or the fear of attending any public event falls under the umbrella that is known as social anxiety disorder. People of all ages, from adolescent to adulthood, can experience some form of social anxiety. According to Reesal (2004) “seven out of 100 Canadians suffer from this condition” (p. E4) I can believe this number, but am surprised it is not higher due to the amount of people that I know suffer from it. Just off the top of my head, I can think of eight members of my close family that struggle with some form of anxiety. Some of the most common symptoms researchers have noticed include: dreading social situations, being terrified to speak in public, the inability to be the center of attention, and avoiding the use of a telephone (“Reach Out,” 2012). For example, I have an irrational fear of calling people on the phone in such a way that I would rather drive to the person’s house to converse in person instead of dialing the telephone.
Though many may label these symptoms as shyness, social anxiety has quite a few differences. Shyness often goes away after a few minutes, so basically once the person starts to warm up to the situation their symptoms diminish or become less noticeable. Whereas social anxiety disorder can affect the way someone interacts with others, maintains and initiates conversation, and can determine one’s drive to go out in any social situation (Reesal, 2004). For instance, if my friend Sue is around a group of strangers and one of them speaks to her, she averts her eyes and nervously shifts her weight from one foot to the other during conversation. She isn’t awkward around our class or teachers, however people that she doesn’t know make her very uncomfortable and it negatively affects her conversational abilities. More people than you may think can suffer from this; it could affect your English teacher, your bus driver, your best friend, or even one of your parents. According to Barry (2016) some of the most famous people, such as Charles Darwin, suffered from social anxiety; research shows that Darwin discovered and described many of the common symptoms we know today (pp. 26, 31). Social anxiety disorder is a diagnosable disease, therefore it is important to look into the multiple treatment options offered to see the difference between healthy treatments, and unhealthy coping methods.
Treatment options for social anxiety vary from medication to video games. It has become common today to dismiss video games as a reasonable method to treat social anxiety, but some believe it is the most suitable option. Whyte (2016) uses her experiences with social anxiety disorder to speak for the video game community that the games can help people with the fear of socializing connect via online chat and voice chat. Many people assume that anyone playing video games is an introvert because of all the time spent playing them. As Whyte (2016) herself puts it, “Parents, pundits, and politicians continue to complain that video games lead to delinquency, violent crimes, and (gasp!) introversion among teens.” I am no video game enthusiast, but I have seen too many friendships formed through the computer screen to agree with the common judgment that video games are a waste of time. I have two very dear friends, Elizabeth and Sue, who use video games to escape the stress of high school, have met lifelong friends and have created connections with those on the other side of the country. In their eyes, video games have helped them connect with those that they never would have met otherwise. Members of my family, along with many of my teachers, don’t believe in the positive effects video games can have on a person’s social skills. However, I still insist that using video games as a coping method for social anxiety can enhance one’s ability to interact in real life social situations. Beyond personal connections, gamers improve their social skills by professionally communicating with companies about their product. Thus encouraging interaction with those they may not be comfortable with. Whyte (2016) describes herself and fellow gamers as “a market identity” due to how impactful their opinions are on the video game industry. She claims that without their commitment to trying new games, the video game community would not be as diverse or as developed as it is today. So, in short, committed gamers develop their ability to interact with others via video games and they positively impact the economic side of the video game community.
As much as I dislike exercising, the evidence shows it is one of the most advantageous approaches to surviving with social anxiety. I have found articles that prove numerous people use it as a coping method. Brianna Lawry, a personal trainer in Red Deer, Canada, fully encourages exercise to cope with social anxiety. Which arouses the common excuse of “Oh I don’t have time to work out.” Although I agree with the common idea that working out takes time, I cannot accept the overriding statement that there isn’t enough time in the day for it. In my opinion, if you put exercising at the top of your priority list then time won’t be a problem. I understand that not everyone has the time to go to a gym, or go on a two-mile walk, so if your workplace has stairs, take those in the morning rather than using the elevator. Studies show that anxious people tend to eat and drink more, therefore consuming more calories than necessary (Elias, 1997). So, naturally, this “stress eating” can cause a decrease in self-esteem. According to Lawry (2016) simple exercises such as running, walking and biking can have a tremendous affect on your mental and physical health. She suggests that exercise can help reduce stress, improve sleep, and boost self-confidence (p. A23). Look good, feel good, right? Everyone knows that feeling confident can impact ones mood, thought process, and overall outlook in a positive way. This step forward creates a positive atmosphere and improves mental health. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big running enthusiast, but I really enjoy biking, so if certain forms aren’t appealing, explore all of the options to see if any are attention grabbers. If an anxiety sufferer were looking for a fun way to exercise, I would recommend Jazzercise. This form has the option to dance and workout at the same time! My mom walks a few miles each night during the summer because she loves sunsets and the outdoors. That way, she is burning calories and getting her heart rate up while soaking up a beautiful orange skyline. Lawry (2016) explains that just half an hour of exercise for three to five days a week can be the key to a healthier lifestyle. The essence of Lawry’s argument is that even doing the bare minimum can still positively impact overall mental health. I fully agree with her opinion and put my support towards anyone that uses exercise as a way to handle his or her social anxiety.
One of the most generic treatments for social anxiety is medication. I am very familiar with this, because both my dad and I use it. Nearly two million prescriptions for antidepressant and antianxiety medications are written each year, which adds up to about ten percent of the Irish population (Murphy, 2015). When asked about his stance on medication, Murphy (2015) himself states, “I see medication like a jacket in stormy water, which can be helpful for some people.” I agree that medication is not for everyone because my experience with it compared to my dad’s confirms it. For instance, my dad has been on his medication for nearly thirty years, and it has worked very well for him. Whereas I have been on it for about three years and it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference. One controversial issue has been the price of the given medications. A member involved in a social anxiety support group states, in reference to the cost of medications, “It is enough to make you anxious and we are already anxious” (Cole, 2017). In this case, looking into alternative medication options, whether is be with another company or a completely different medicine would be a smart decision. On the one hand, people of the public argue the price is too high to continue paying. On the other hand, they admit that the medicine greatly helped ease their anxiety (Cole, 2017). My own view is that medication is one of the best treatment options for social anxiety, and those that are willing to pay the price will benefit from it. However, I still believe it affects one person differently than another so exercise is a better option to those unaffected by medications.
Whereas some are convinced these drugs are essential to their survival with this illness, others maintain that people consuming the drugs are uneducated and therefore mishandle its power. When it comes to the topic of anxiety medication, most of us will readily agree that it is a painless process that requires little to no effort; unlike exercise, in which you just take the medication once or twice a day and continue on with your routine. Where this agreement usually ends however, is on the question of do people just abuse it. A number of psychologists have recently suggested that the amount of drug abuse, especially among adolescents, is rising due to lack of knowledge and experimental instances (“Teens Prescribed”, 2014). Carol J Boyd, professor at Michigan School of Nursing, states
The public often thinks that nonmedical use of these prescription drugs is driven by doctor shipping and drug dealers, but it isn’t, it is driven by people with prescriptions who divert their pills to other people who are usually friends of family members. (“Teens Prescribed,” 2014)
You would think family members and friends would want what is best for the individual suffering from social anxiety disorder, but unfortunately we live in a world where people will do anything for drugs, even if it means risking their life. Boyd’s theory of family members and friends opening the doors to addiction is extremely useful because it sheds light on the difficult problem of assisted drug abuse. If the problem of misusing serious medications, such as Xanax or Lunesta, does not decrease, those that truly need the medicine will lose the opportunity and could surrender to a different, or even worse method of surviving with social anxiety.
Many people with anxiety lean on alcohol as an escape from their constant state of stress. Though this seems like a good idea, it only helps numb the pain for a little while, it does not actually cure their illness. Schmeck (1998) emphasizes this point in his article about depression and anxiety being major contributors to addiction. We all know how addictions work, you try it once thinking you won’t get addicted, and next thing you know, it is all you can think about and starts controlling your life. Simply using alcohol to try and rid yourself of the stress you feel from social anxiety one time can easily turn into addiction. A study done by the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center gathered information on patients with anxiety or depression to try a new anti-depression drug called Imipramine (Shmeck, 1998). My father is a consumer of Fluoxetine, which is another type of anti-depressant drug that subdues one’s nerves, and he has been taught that, like Imipramine, the mixing of chemicals in this medicine and the chemicals of alcohol is not advised because it can increase and worsen your level of anxiety. They celebrate the fact that after treatment, many patients, previously dependent on alcohol, reported a decline in both anxiety and the craving for alcohol (Shmeck, 1998). I’m not here to suggest completely erasing alcohol from your diet, however when you start counting on a bottle of scotch to make your anxious thoughts go away, your anxiety will not only be there when you sober up, but as will a plethora of other health problems to go along with it.
More often than not, psychiatrists or doctors will give you a prescription for which medication they believe will work best for your symptoms. In my opinion, counseling is very beneficial because it gives you a chance to work on yourself without the dependency of medicine. Murphy (2015) himself states “Counseling tries to figure out how you fell out of the boat and provides you with some strong swimming strokes that give you the choice to swim back to the boat or to a new shore”. Though attending a session and pouring your heart out to someone you barely know may not sound appealing, most young adults, especially college students find solace at their university counselor’s office. Dr. Carol Barnett, a mental health counselor at Morehead State University, explains that nearly 400 students attend the counseling center per year, with most of them being freshman (Smedley, 2016). This does not surprise me at all since the first year of college is full of new and unusual circumstances. People are constantly reminding me that freshman year is a difficult thing to adjust to because classes are harder, students are no longer in the comfort of their home, and unfamiliar faces surround them while they try to become accustomed to their new life. As a future college student, I worry about visiting a counselor to address my anxiety, because frankly, there are only two people in the whole world that can calm my nerves: my mom, and my best friend Elizabeth. They both always know exactly what to say whether I am scared of giving a speech, dreading the feeling of running in a track meet, or any other miscellaneous scenario. While I am fortunate enough to have people in my life that can help me cope with my social anxiety, I know the percentage of people that don’t is high. In which case, going to a certified counselor would be the best option if exercise and medication were both ineffective.
While going in depth on treatment options for social anxiety is important, I believe digging down to find a common source of this evil is equally if not more important. Duong (2014) a producer at anxiety.org, gives credit to many people’s anxiety disorders to this century’s development. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. all equally contribute to this disorder. We all recognize the feeling of hesitation before hitting the “post” button, where your stomach drops to your toes and the temperature rises to 150 degrees. After posting it, the constant need to see who likes our post, and the thoughts: “I wonder who has liked my picture,” “Okay, if it doesn’t get more likes in the next hour then I’ll just delete it” sit in the backs of our minds. According to Tarsha (2016), “With social media engagement, adolescents often express that they do not want to compulsively check their mobile phones or networking sites, but instead feel compelled to do so”. Thus, bringing back the feeling of needing enough likes, or your picture was pointless. I can easily relate to this dilemma, and I am guilty of deleting or not posting something that I wanted to at least seven or eight times. Once, when I had just gotten back from a trip to the east coast, I had a picture of myself standing in front of a theatre on Broadway. I wanted to post it to show my friends how beautiful New York City is (and let’s be honest, maybe brag a little bit that I had been there!) Nonetheless, I hesitated an entire day to post because I was scared that my appearance wasn’t up to par for my followers to like it, or I was intimidated of the degrading thoughts that would go through their minds when they didn’t. Instead of being confident and not caring what anyone thought of my memorable picture, I was scared and let my “overly anxious thoughts” take control of my actions. I told my friend Elizabeth about my predicament and when I sent her the picture, she nearly went insane because she thought it was an amazing picture. Once she told me this, I immediately got a confidence boost and I knew that I needed to post it. This situation may sound ridiculous, but more people suffer from it than one may think.
Surviving with social anxiety disorder can be turned into living with social anxiety if the correct treatment method is practiced. That method being anything from running one or two miles a day, to finding the right medication to lessen the burden that anxiety puts on a person. These options would not only increase the quality of life for those suffering from social anxiety, but would contribute to the (hopeful) lessening of the illness as a whole. I’m aware that one does not simply escape the grasp of anxiety, but how great would it be to live in a world where people weren’t completely petrified to interact with others or didn’t get nauseous at the thought of speaking in front of a group of people. Everyone deserves the highest quality of life possible, and with the proper treatment options, I believe those of us that suffer from social anxiety disorder at least have a chance at true happiness.
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Cole, D. (2017, February 8). The price of pills cause some anxiety. Goulburn Post. Retrieved from: http://www.goulburnpost.com.au
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