Telling people you have a Social Anxiety Disorder can be an incredibly scary thing to approach and often when you do tell someone you have it, it’s hard to find the words to actually explain social anxiety and do it justice. I think a lot of us have dealt with people who just don’t understand it and assume that it’s no big deal, so how do we explain social anxiety to someone to help them really understand?
Some things to remember first
Your friends and family are your support network. Even if you think by telling them they’re going to see you as screwed up or a burden… they won’t. If they do, then they’re the ones that are screwed up, not you! If you haven’t told them you have social anxiety and you’re worried that it’s going to bother them or they’re not going to understand then you are underestimating their love for you. You have a serious disorder that affects your life, this is not just “teenage stuff” and you’re not just complaining to them, this isn’t trivial… it’s your life. You need support right now, so give your family and your friends a chance to be there for you and help you. That’s what they are there for and I just know you would do the same for them!
They might just surprise you! A big number of times that I’ve shared with friends & family members that I have a Social Anxiety Disorder, they have then confessed to having an anxiety disorder themselves and we’ll talk for hours about it and how it affects us day-to-day. It’s surprising how many people live with anxiety and hide it well – you might actually find that a few people you talk to also have it and may be able to give you some solid advice or offer you some support based on their own experiences.
It’s okay if they don’t understand. There are always going to be people who don’t understand. Either because they can’t relate whatsoever or because they just don’t want to. There are always going to be people who don’t believe mental illness is a real thing and some people who think social anxiety is just being “shy” and that you’ll grow out of it. It’s frustrating but it’s okay. My Dad was one of these people, his favourite line was “Just get on with it.” and for years it hurt me but now I get why he didn’t understand. Not just because he came from a generation where you don’t talk about stuff like that, you just crack on with life but because ever since I started overcoming the worst of my social anxiety, I can no longer remember why I was petrified of so many of the things I can actually do now. I’m still anxious about lots of things but the things I overcame my fear of don’t make a whole heap of sense to me anymore, yet they were so real and terrifying to me at the time.
How to explain Social Anxiety to someone who doesn’t have it.
Make it more relatable
The thing is, everyone has a degree of anxiety. Everyone. It’s human instinct to feel anxious in certain situations but when it gets to the point that it’s affecting your life that’s when it becomes a problem. Try and find a situation that your friends & family have been through that made them anxious (like starting a new job, doing a big presentation, having an operation, doing a skydive etc.) and compare that to your social anxiety. Explain that often it can feel as if you’re about to start a new job every time you go into a social situation or something to that effect.
Last year I did a 2 hour talk for a photographic society and it was an insanely daunting experience but hugely compared to how I felt pulling up to school every morning when I was a teenager. No wonder I was so exhausted and desperate in high school if I was feeling like that every single day.
You could also ask them what their worst fears are, maybe they have a phobia of some kind and that way you can relate how your anxiety affects you in your daily life. Explain how you play out your worst fears constantly and it stops you from doing basic things.
Do a run through
One way I explain social anxiety to people is by doing a complete run through of just ONE simple situation that might arise in my daily life.
For example: I once ran through with a friend, a scenario of a quick trip to the shop (which was not even half a mile from my front door) and I explained exactly what thoughts were running through my head during this trip to the shop. It went something like this…
Spend 2 hours getting ready to go to the shop, physically psyching myself up to go.
Spend 15-30 minutes standing by my front door waiting for cars to go away before I open the door. Just wanting to check that nobody will park up or leave their house at the same time as me opening the front door. Every single car noise is halting the process by another 3-5 minutes.
Finally open the door but scared I won’t be able to lock it quick enough or I’ll look stupid trying to lock the door. Also worried that people can see me through their windows.
Walk along my garden path towards the curb and not sure how many steps to take so that I can step off the curb at the right time without looking stupid. Wondering if I should take one long step off the curb, or two little steps to walk off the curb. The timing of me walking towards the curb has to be perfect or everyone looking at me through their windows is going to think I’m stupid and I’ll be so embarrassed.
Got across the street and now I’m scared of getting onto the next curb on time. Have all the same worrying thoughts about the last curb!
Walking along the street on the path wondering if anyone is looking at me through their windows. Am I walking stupid? Am I pulling a weird face? Can people see me breathing weird?
Have to cross the road but not sure whether to cross before the green man lights up even though all the cars are stopped and are probably waiting for me to cross. They probably think I’m stupid and annoying and they just want me to cross but what if I do cross before the green man and they think I’m stupid and ignorant for walking across before it’s my turn? What if a car runs me over? I hate walking across the road past people stopped in their cars, they’re probably looking at me and thinking I’m stupid or I’m dressed rubbish.
Across the street and approaching the shop, now I’m terrified I’m going to look stupid when I go through the automatic doors, should I approach them slowly because if I approach them at a normal pace and they don’t open very quickly I’m going to look stupid?!
…….. END scenario! Exhausted???? Yeah me too! That was just walking from my house to the shop, if I had to write about my thoughts in the actual shop this would be a much longer post.
But, this gives some insight to the person you are explaining your disorder too. Just give them a snippet of how you feel and I’m sure they’ll start to understand a bit better of how exhausting a battle anxiety is when you deal with it all day, every day.
Tell them what you want from them
The person you are telling is most likely going to want to help you, so tell them how they can. Maybe it’s your parents and you want them to take you to the doctors, maybe you want a friend to be aware not to drop you in situations that will make you super anxious… whatever it is they can do to help you, just tell them.
Dispel the Myths
Another thing when you explain social anxiety to someone who doesn’t have it, is that you may have to dispel some of the myths that surround the disorder. Explain how it’s much more than just being shy and that it doesn’t automatically mean you don’t want to be around people, it’s just that being around people is difficult and stressful for you. You can also explain how you never use it as an excuse to get out of things as you wish you didn’t have it at all.
Let them know about the physical aspects of anxiety
You know the ones; The profuse sweating, the trembling, the nausea, the heart palpitations, the shortness of breath, the many many trips to the toilet, the headaches, the high blood pressure… almost feeling like you might die! Anxiety can be a huge strain on your body and physical state, it doesn’t just affect your mind.
Sometimes telling someone about the physical symptoms of anxiety can help them relate more. For some reason people believe in physical symptoms much easier than mental ones.
Tell them how you are dealing with it
A great way to end the conversation when you’re opening up about your social anxiety is how you are currently trying to deal with it or your plans on dealing with it. It shows the person you are being proactive and positive about it and will more than likely help them to encourage you. Maybe let them know you have a doctor’s appointment, or that you’re seeking therapy or on a type of medication that helps. Even just letting them know that you’ve been doing lots of research and you’re ready to take some steps on getting help for it will help!
Honestly, once you have told someone about your struggles you are going to feel so much relief! I know it’s hard to explain social anxiety but once you’ve told one person, you will feel much more comfortable telling another person. Of course there are going to be some people in your life that you’re never going to want to tell, which is okay, you don’t need to tell everyone but I do think you’ll feel better when you know you have some support behind you.
If you want some ideas on things you can ask from your friends and family maybe check out this post: 6 Simple Ways You Can Help Someone With Social Anxiety. You can even share it with them if you like!
I wish you the best of luck with your loved ones, I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised how they react and how much of a relief it is to tell someone. If you think this post can help someone else to explain social anxiety to their friends & family, feel free to pass it along and why not download this free anxiety guide in the mean time!