Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A New School Year and Social Anxiety Disorder

Many kids have some anxiety about starting the school year and about being in school overall. That's fairly normal, and generally that dissipates as the year progresses, usually fairly quickly. For those of you struggling through that right now, take a deep breath, hold your head up, and know it will pass.

For a much smaller percentage, that anxiety goes well beyond the "norm" (norm can be hard to define) and the feeling doesn't pass. It's there all year. They must learn to handle it and continue going day after day after very long day until holiday breaks and summer vacation. They're anxious from the time they get up, with that anxiety increasing as they get ready to go, as they're on their way to school, when they get into the parking lot, and then it jumps into higher gear as they set foot in the door.

Every day. Without fail.

Until the final bell rings and they can walk through the halls, out the doors, back to the parking lot, and finally breath a sigh of relief when they get to their own yard/house and can actually breathe again without wanting to scream from the ridiculous amount of tension they hide inside while trying their best to act as normal as possible, to speak when spoken to, to not physically explode when called on to talk in front of the class while they stammer and feel their faces turn red and feel the stares because they're stammering and their faces are red and the room is suddenly a sauna with a loud thudding drum beating through their brains, even when seated at their desk and need only a few word reply. Let me tell you: they may be walking out those halls on the way home, but inside they're doing a sprint that would put most Olympic athletes to shame.

How do I know? I've been there. Every school year, all the way through two colleges. Every day.

It's torture. If you're rolling your eyes at the "torture" bit, then you don't have Social Anxiety Disorder and can't truly understand it. Please, try to understand. We are not simply shy. We are not simply nervous during public speaking (most people are). We are nervous when a friend speaks to us, even when a family member speaks to us, because we know they're expecting us to answer in some way and the thought of having to talk to someone, of saying something that we'll worry about how it sounded for days afterward is enough to freeze our otherwise very lucid thoughts and feel like complete morons, which we know is actually untrue, but many times, we're not sure it's untrue.

We're often thought of as much less intelligent than we are simply because we lack the ability to speak calmly and rationally out loud.

We know there's something very wrong with us. There is. Saying otherwise is a slap in the face. No one should have to feel that way every day of their life, day in and day out, other than when they're alone, and even then, they can be anxious when thinking over what they might have said and done during the day. We turn down invitations to things we would really love to do because we can't stand the thought of being around all of those people, even if they're people we know. We have trouble going grocery shopping because ... there are People there! Not because we're tired of putting up with some of the ridiculous or rude stuff some people do, but just because they are people. We can't even go sit around a campfire with a bunch of people we've know for years and relax and have fun. There is no such thing as relaxing if others are around. It doesn't happen.

That's not just regular social anxiety, which most people have to some extent. That's Social Anxiety Disorder, which used to be called Social Phobia, a term I still use. We all have traits of usually several disorders. There's nothing unusual about that. It becomes an actual disorder when it severely interferes with your life, such as someone with agoraphobia refusing to ever step out their door, or someone with mysophobia refusing to ever touch anything or anyone without sanitizing himself afterward.

We need others to understand a few things:
1- We are not being snobs. We are afraid to talk to you. It's really that simple, and that complicated.
2- We are not stupid. You can't imagine the stuff going on inside our heads.
3- If we walk past you while out and about and don't respond when you wave or try to speak to us, chances are very good that we did not see or hear you because we're intensely focused on not being overwhelmed by having so many people around us, and we have to block them out to survive the ordeal. Don't be insulted. It'll make things harder on us if we know we unintentionally insulted you.
4- We can't stand it when someone mentions how quiet or shy we are. Trust me, we know. Mentioning it only makes it worse and makes us want to dig faster through that hole in the floor we already want to crawl into. Please don't.
5- Teachers: Please, PLEASE understand what social phobia is and how much we're already struggling. Look it up. There are tons of posts on Pinterest that explain what we're feeling, and we'll never be able to tell you. Please, don't call on us unnecessarily. And above all, never make jokes about how quiet we are or how we have trouble making ourselves answer you.

True story: In college, I took a mandatory class called Senior Seminar. It was half graded on class participation. I could not get my degree without it. The professor, I was happy to find out, was a psychologist. As such, I expected he would understand when, during the mandatory "meet privately with the teacher" session, he explained that my written work was outstanding but my grade was suffering due to lack of participation. So, I told this college professor, a trained psychologist, about my social phobia and that I was trying very, very hard to make myself participate verbally and thought I was doing fairly well considering how hard it was. He told me I needed to try harder if I wanted a decent grade. I was literally shaking as I left his office: the meeting was so disturbing and uncomfortable and he was so condescending. And then he called me out in front of the class the rest of the year to push me to talk more, which had the opposite effect.
Result: a C in the class and a strengthening of the phobia due to being pushed and from, what I felt, was betrayal from someone in the field of my major I was supposed to be able to respect.
Teachers: Please, do not be this guy!

What you can do if you suspect a classmate/friend has social phobia:
1- Don't mention it unless you know her very well, and then ask how you can help. Never push.
2- Don't laugh at verbal mistakes or stammering.
3- Accept that she may want to just listen and include her in a conversation without pushing her to talk.
4- Invite her to low anxiety activities such as a movie or a walk around the park. That can expand to few-people activities later.
5- Realize although it may be uncomfortable for you, it's for worse for her and she's doing her best to not make you uncomfortable. Relax and accept the quiet.

If you're struggling with social phobia/social anxiety disorder:
1- Please know you're NOT ALONE. There are about 15 million of us in the United States, and that number is probably higher since we generally don't want to talk about it or admit it.
2- It is NOT a life sentence. At least it does not have to be. It may never fully go away, but there are things you can do to lesson the anxiety and live a more normal life. Yes, you can.
3- WRITE about it. Do it. Keep the journal or notebook where no one will find it and write about how you feel and how you'd like to feel, about bad days and good days and about your goals. On days you can't write about it but need release (what day don't you need release?), draw it out instead. Scribble. Doodle. Color. Whatever. Get it out. Or work with clay. Create what you're feeling. You can always smash it, if you'd like.
4- Hang in there. Things will get better.

As a recovering social phobic, my goal is to try to help others recover now that I can make myself talk about. I'll be posting more about my path to recovery, along with setbacks. It won't be easy to do this article series, since recovering is not cured, but recovering is far, far better than non-recovering and I want you to be on that path, as well. <3

Please, share this with anyone you think might need a hand in recovery or who is dealing with someone close to them who is social phobic. I know it's not always easy for them, either. It took a lot of years for my husband to understand my SAD and to learn how to help instead of making it worse because they don't understand.

These days, I seldom want to crawl into a hole just because I'm talking to someone. I do book signings with few nervous issues and without an all day migraine the next day due to the extreme stress it used to be. I go to events with my husband's friends and am able to talk to them like a real person. I'm even running a local book festival. It's taken a LOT of years and a lot of back and forth struggle to get this far, but if you want it enough, you can do it.

Stay tuned. And take a deep breath.