Local Resident Works to Build Community for Social Anxiety
I remember the first time I felt social anxiety as I walked into my second-hour class as a sophomore in high school. I had always been shy, but this was different. It was fear. What was it? I was afraid that if people in class saw me sweating through my shirt that I would become an outcast, that my entire reputation would come crumbling down, and that I had to hide this fatal flaw at all costs. Looking back this was completely irrational, but also unfair since my first hour of class was the gym. Who stops sweating the minute they leave gym class after intense exercise? I didn’t, but apparently, at the time, I felt I should have.
At that moment a core belief was born; I am only allowed to sweat while exercising. Any sweat that happened outside those bounds was deemed unacceptable and must be hidden at all costs. To achieve this, I had to remain incredibly vigilant and self-conscious any time I was in a social situation so as not to reveal my fatal flaw. I became a sort of sweating detective in that I was always looking for others who might be sweating through their clothing as well. Finding someone else that was also sweating would make me feel less self-conscious if I was sweaty. There was less chance I could be singled out as sweating abnormally. One of the main things that I struggled with was the endless spiral of sweat caused by anxiety itself. I would worry about sweating in a situation, such as a class where I knew I would be trapped until class ended. This caused me to sweat from anticipatory anxiety, which caused me to have more anxiety, and more sweat, etc.
I suffered in silence for about 5 long years, believing that if I thought about it enough and tried to think my way out, I could find a solution. I would wake up and be cured. This did not work. After one very stressful day in college, I broke down and called my parents and told them my entire story. My brain told me I would become a pariah and be deemed unlovable. But the opposite happened. I was welcomed and greeted with sympathy and understanding. After this revelation, I began to share with others and realized the same thing happened. Those close to me told stories of their struggles with mental health too. I never would have expected this.
I started to see a few different therapists and finally found a name for the thing I had been struggling with: Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Reading the list of symptoms experienced by individuals with SAD felt as though I was reading a description of my life for the past 5 years, so I knew I was on the right track. I graduated college, got married, and started my first job out of college. As time went on, however, I found it very difficult to find a therapist that truly understood SAD. Many suggested going to different places in order to flood me until I was comfortable, or to do something embarrassing in public to see that no one cared. I do agree that the latter has some legitimacy when making progress against SAD, however, I was already sweaty and dizzy when pulling into the parking lot of a store. I was nowhere near ready to perform this kind of behavioral experiment they were suggesting.
Around 2017, I discovered a program through the Social Anxiety Institute that was helpful in better understanding the nature of SAD, its inner workings, and how to make progress against it. I went through the program twice and made fantastic progress, albeit regressing in the past few years. Although the Institute is located in Arizona and is nowhere near me, it was incredible to hear someone describe the exact way I was feeling. I had never read anything written by another person that understood SAD so well. I am very thankful to the Institute for helping me better understand my disorder and for giving me the tools I needed to make progress against it.
I have since also been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which in my opinion, is why my brain latched onto and obsessed about sweating. I have also found that other family members struggled with SAD and that there is most likely a genetic component that contributes to my experiences with SAD and OCD. From what I have read, SAD is typically a combination of both genetic and environmental factors.
At this point in my life, my social anxiety tends to ebb and flow, as is the case with most that struggle with anxiety. I tend to be an outlier in that I don’t avoid things and am outspoken about having SAD. Most people I chat with online avoid most things in life to minimize the amount of anxiety they experience. While I totally understand this mentality and have done this myself before, I know now that SAD thrives on avoidance. It feels good in the short term but makes the next social interaction even harder.
Thank you so much,