Photo Illustration by Laura Fox
Most people don’t view a simple hallway as a terrifying and overwhelming thing. I do. Whether it be overcrowded with bodies or almost entirely empty, it is equally crushing and paralyzing. This is what it is like to have social anxiety disorder.
As long as I can remember, I have been uncomfortable in large buildings with or without large groups of people. By the time I was in high school, it was disastrous. My high school experience made everything worse.
I was bullied in high school. When I was 16, through various events, I changed my entire group of friends. The former friends took this as me saying I was better than them and a little self-righteous brat. Really, it was self-preservation.
My car was vandalized. I was afraid to leave my dog outside for the fear these girls would harm her. There were days I would call my mother crying so hard I couldn’t speak.
I had foul things yelled in my face in the hallways. Incredibly disgusting rumors were spread about me. I was verbally abused on almost a daily basis.
Every day of my junior and senior year of high school, walking into the building felt like taking my life in my hands. An extreme sentiment, yes. That’s exactly how it felt for me.
I missed more school than was allowed and I almost didn’t graduate. If it weren’t for the graces of an amazing vice principal and his caring heart, I could not have survived and gotten my diploma.
I mention this only briefly to highlight when my social anxiety skyrocketed. Being in public had always made me incredibly uncomfortable and after these years of bullying, the idea of going out into the world became physically painful. My palms sweat, my heart races, and I can’t catch my breath.
Because of my experiences in high school and always being on high alert, I have had an extremely hard time with college. I went to two semesters at Dixie State in Saint George and dropped out.
I couldn’t handle being there and missed far too much school. It took me until age 24 to come back to school at UVU.
Even now it’s hard for me to be on campus, especially due to how campus is laid out and the intensely over-crowded hallways between buildings. I’ve experienced multiple panic attacks while on campus, although mostly have been triggered by outside events that were exacerbated by being in a social situation.
Most of my life I thought the feelings I had were normal, that everyone experienced the same reactions to public places. It didn’t click that I was different until I was 21.
My mother, a huge Osmond family fan, lent me her copy of Donny Osmond’s autobiography. In the book, Donny talked about when he developed social anxiety disorder in his 30s.
As I read Donny’s detailed experience and the panic he experienced, I related all too well. It wasn’t everyone. It also wasn’t just me and I wasn’t crazy. That was empowering.
Social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders; 12 percent of Americans will experience it at some time in their lives. And, like in my case, it begins at an early age. Half of those who develop social anxiety have developed it by the age of 11 and 80 percent have developed it by age 20.
Treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy and medications. Social anxiety is also a contributor to depression and substance abuse.
For me, I’ve learned to control my anxiety with music. If I’m anywhere with a large building or large population, I have to have my earbuds in with music playing.
I do this so I can focus on something other than what is going on around me. It may sound silly or hokey and perhaps it is, yet this is what I have found works for me when therapy or just “toughing it out” didn’t.
What I’ve learned about myself through my social anxiety is that I will not allow it to control my life. I will not be crippled by my weaknesses.
I’ve taken this weakness and turned it into one of my strengths. I have all but forced myself into situations where I felt uncomfortable in order to stretch myself.
I take almost every opportunity to speak in public, give presentations, introduce myself to complete strangers and put myself out there so to speak.
I work with over 50 people every day at work. I teach classes on and off campus. I have thrown myself into the professional world in spite of my social anxiety. Most people have no idea of the struggle I’ve been dealing with for over 20 years.
I’ve learned a lot about myself through my social anxiety. I am a lot stronger than even I knew. I will not be defined by my disorder.