On Friday and Saturday nights in college — a slate of parties ahead of her — Brittany Tomkin would suddenly get terrible stomachaches and nausea. It would get so bad, she wouldn't be able to eat or drink anything.
"There were definitely many occasions when I would go home early because I wasn't comfortable being around other people," she said in an email.
Tomkin was experiencing social anxiety — a mental health condition that affects 15 million Americans, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. "Those with social anxiety disorder experience an intense fear of being scrutinized and negatively evaluated by others in social or performance situations," the ADAA's website says. "Some literally feel sick from fear in seemingly nonthreatening situations."
For people with social anxiety, it can be hard to explain to your friends why you've been quiet for the duration of a party, or why you're leaving the party early. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked people with social anxiety what they'd like their friends to understand.
1. "It's not about just being 'shy'"
2. "I'm not being rude"
"I was diagnosed with social anxiety about three years ago, but that was just because that's when I decided to see a doctor about it. I'm sure I've had it for much longer. The good thing about my friends is that they understand the introversion part of my personality and what that requires, but they don't seem to understand that social anxiety is different — even though the two often go hand in hand.
"They don't understand that when I'm in large groups or unfamiliar settings, I'm not being rude and I don't just 'need to recharge,' but rather I feel mentally paralyzed and have a lot of physical symptoms, too, such as an increased heart rate. Words don't come as easily to my brain as they do when I'm one-on-one or in a comfortable place. I just really want people to know the physical symptoms that come with social anxiety, and that we really can't control it. It's not an unwillingness to talk to people or some sort of skill we need to work on. It's an actual mental disorder. There is treatment, but it doesn't get rid of it completely." — Kelly*, 31
3. Some days are worse than others
4. "Logic and reason don't matter"
"There were definitely many occasions when I would go home early because I wasn't comfortable being around other people.
"At parties, I would make a checklist in my head of things to do, in order, so that I would be occupied. First — look around for the exits. Immediately see if there's anyone I know. Go to the bar. Get a drink. Move away from the crowds and scan to see if there's anyone I know that I can talk to. If there isn't anybody, drink. Still nobody? OK. Go to the bathroom. Reapply make up. Come back out. Tie your shoe. In a way, I'm sure that only exacerbated my anxiety, but having focused goals made me feel like my anxiety would at least feel justified.
"I feel like some people don't understand the fact that you can be aware that you have nothing specific to be anxious about — that you can be aware that you know your anxiety is illogical — but still feel anxious anyway. It's like, 'Well hey, you know it's your anxiety speaking and that you have literally nothing to be afraid of, so why don't you just do it?' But you can't. Your anxiety won't let you — it's there no matter what. Logic and reason don't matter when you're feeling anxious, because knowing it doesn't make the anxiety go away. Thinking 'I have nothing to worry about — what's the worst thing that can happen?' doesn't help — you have this feeling of dread, even when the stakes are so low." — Brittany Tomkin, 26
5. Even simple questions feel overwhelming
6. "It doesn't mean that I don't like you"
"One thing I wish my friends understood about me is that sometimes I really just need to be left alone. Being social can be very taxing, even if it's with those who I love, and I need some downtime to recover every now and then. It doesn't mean that I don't like you, or that you have scorned me in any way! It can be tough to explain to some of my more extroverted friends, who sometimes take it personally.
"Perhaps more than that, I'd like to tell them 'thank you' for being patient and understanding with me." — Travis Smith, 24
7. "Just because someone isn't talking doesn't mean they don't have something to say"
"I think the biggest misconception about people with social anxiety is that we don't talk because we don't like to or because we have nothing to say. Others are always shocked when they get to know me and realize how opinionated and outgoing I can be once they break past my hard outer shell. Just because someone isn't talking doesn't mean they don't have something to say." — Melanie Newhouse, 20