Do you find basic human interactions stressful?
Social anxiety is a crippling problem for many, and it needs more understanding and acceptance to be overcome
Dubai-based Sandra can't quite pinpoint the moment when she knew she had social anxiety. However, she does recall one specific memory. "We had a public speaking session in class in grade 8," she says. "There were just 30 students. I learned the entire paragraph and re-read it multiple times. But when I went up there, I started trembling and sweating. I completely forgot everything I had read. And then I fainted. Later, we discussed stage fright and let it pass. We didn't have mental health awareness in school."
Sandra's fears weren't just on the stage though. They permeated different aspects of her life including meeting new people, giving presentations, shaking someone's hand, eating in front of someone, talking on the phone in front of others or simply being thrown into a situation that had not been planned and prepared for. "These are all everyday situations that cannot be avoided - but a person with social anxiety goes through them in a completely different way," she explains.
In today's day and age, we've finally gotten more comfortable talking about mental illnesses but social anxiety still remains largely unchartered territory. So, what exactly is it? Sandra describes it as "not a problem of confidence or shyness, but a constant fear of negative evaluation".
IT VARIES FROM PERSON TO PERSON
Dr Marie Thomson, clinical psychologist and clinical director of Vivamus, explains social anxiety as "a marked fear of performance situations in which the person feels exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny from others. The person fears they will act in a way that will be embarrassing or humiliating."
While, for some, social situations can be extremely distressing, many others can function fairly well - as long as they are able to avoid isolated triggers, she adds.
The latter can be seen in the case of Gautam Viswanathan, who was raised in Oman but previously worked in the UAE. Although he was perfectly fine growing up, when he moved to Dubai, he found certain situations made him anxious - triggered in part due to a tremendous 'pressure to fit in'.
"I find that when I am part of a large group that has their minds set on a particular activity that does not appeal to me (like smoking, for example), if I'd point out that there were other things we could do, people were quick to disagree," he says. "I'd then essentially develop an anxiety. It would manifest itself in the form of tightness in my solar plexus (pit of the stomach). What people who suffer from social anxiety seem to see around them is a world waiting to laugh at their mistakes."
Gautam believed that not fitting in would lead to arguments and ridicule and he'd ended up limiting his interactions with people, or making excuses when invited to events. However, he admits that he's one of the lucky ones - his willingness to meet new people would often win out and he'd take a leap of faith when it came to going out.
THE PERSONAL ASPECT
At this point, it might be easy to confuse social anxiety with introvertedness or a fear of public speaking - something fairly common in society. After all, doesn't everyone experience that 'butterflies in the tummy' sensation when speaking in front of an audience? The difference, however, lies in the fact that social anxiety features a vicious cycle between negative thought, anxiety and behaviour that perpetuates the issue (such as avoiding someone/ something), explains Dr Marie.
Dr Marie Thompson is the clinical psychologist and clinical director of Vivamus
"If someone laughs at you for tripping up, and you shake it off attributing their unkind response as a reflection of them, you're likely to go about your day giving it little thought," she explains. "But for someone with social anxiety, such an instance would trigger negative and self-berating thoughts like 'I'm an idiot', 'I'm useless' and 'I'm no good'.
"Once you start to think those thoughts, you feel anxious and low, determined not to act in a way that is open to judgement. Sometimes people are so fearful of judgement that they avoid situations like signing their name in public, eating in front of others, or speaking in meetings. This has a significant impact on a person's life."
Can social anxiety even go so far as to affect an individual's ability to make long-term bonds with other people? Not necessarily - but sometimes, says Dr Marie. "If they feel truly accepted by their partners, they don't fear judgement from them (and their fear relates only to strangers or acquaintances). However, I've worked with people whose belief that they're inadequate or unlovable hinders their ability to enter intimate relationships. That being said, the quality of relationships lends itself well to therapy - there is scope for change."
THE EDUCATIONAL ASPECT
Joslin Gracias, student counsellor at University of Wollongong Dubai, has organised workshops for students with social anxiety in the past. And according to her, it's a commonly-seen issue, especially occurring in the age group of 14-25 - it's also on the rise in the region. "The cultural diversity we see in the UAE obviously changes the dynamics of friend circles/ groups and the values one carries from their families. Many a times, bullying can be a cause for anxiety. Another reason people avoid social interaction is the fear of rejection from a friend circle."
Some signs that a student may have social anxiety are if they avoid social situations, are highly critical of themselves, and are generally very indecisive. This can also spill onto other parts of their lives, affecting their self-esteem and grades. "Assessments in the form of group projects, presentations, public speaking and interviews tend to suffer," Joslin explains.
However, it's not all bad news. According to Joslin, workshops and support groups can go a long way towards helping students deal with their anxieties. "If they want a more individual approach, they can always meet the student counsellor at school or university or a psychologist. There are a number of reasons why people have social anxiety and it's not just going to go away. One needs to work on themselves, create social goals (see below box for details) and love and accept themselves for who they are."
THE CORPORATE ASPECT
It's not just classroom performance that can be affected. Avneet Kohli, a confidence and public speaking coach who has previously dealt with people with social anxiety, talks about how it can impact one's professional life as well. "Gone are the days when organisations looked for degrees and experience alone. Today, an important thing they look for is a team player. Social connections and interactions are the basis of forming trust on a team."
Avneet Kohli is a confidence and public speaking coach
Other than the obvious problems - handling colleagues, presentations and team meetings - social anxiety can also lead to problems when it comes to voicing opinions or standing by one's work.
According to Avneet, it all boils down to self-belief and confidence. "Being capable is one thing - being able to communicate the same is another. This lack of self-belief can hold people back from expressing themselves clearly in the workplace and finding satisfaction and fulfillment."
With social anxiety being a fairly new talking point, it may come as no surprise that many are still unaware of the issue. Or, even worse, they brush it off as a laughable 'quirk'.
"If you have a cold or a fracture, people are sympathetic. However, tell them you have depression or anxiety or insomnia and people are quick to dismiss you or tell you to 'shake it off'. It seems to be that people tend to look down on conditions they don't really understand," says Gautam, adding that there are still some sympathetic understanding people out there.
Sandra, whose condition has improved since she was in school and university, believes that it's important for people with anxiety to talk about it to someone close to them - be it a friend, parent, sibling or therapist. "There is nothing wrong with going to a psychologist. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having these issues. Social anxiety can hinder your daily life, so the more you know about it, the better. Being in denial and not having awareness can only heighten the issue. Find the one person you can talk to - it will make you life so much easier."
Finally, friends and family can do their part to help. If a loved one is exhibiting certain symptoms, it would be best to read up on the condition and approach the topic gently.
"My motto in life is to take baby steps," says Sandra. "The minute you control your mind to think that the situation is not as big a deal as it seems, you overcome it."