Gina thought it was normal that she didn't have many friends. She assumed no one would want to have anything to do with her, so she mostly kept to herself. Although Gina was bright, she hated school. She dreaded being called on by the teacher to answer question. She knew she'd freeze up and wouldn't be able to speak. Lunchtime was the worst. She never had anyone to sit by, and she felt too nervous to eat much. She was so miserable, she frequently had stomachaches and begged to stay home.
Gina had accepted her mother’s explanation that she was “just shy." But now as an adult, she was having problems at work, too. Lately, she worried she was going crazy. “I just don't know what's wrong with me,” she said.
In working with Gina, I realized she wasn't “just shy.” She was painfully shy. Of course, most people have had butterflies in their stomach before giving a speech or have felt a little nervous on a first date. These natural reactions don't come close to the extreme fear and anxiety experienced by people like Gina. The technical term for the condition is social anxiety disorder, or social phobia as it was previously called.
Here is a self-assessment test to see if you have social anxiety disorder. Perhaps you can print this out and check off any items that apply. (This self-assessment is not a substitute for an evaluation with a mental health professional.)
These are situations in which I'm likely to experience social anxiety:
Talking on the telephone
Being introduced to others
Answering the door
Interacting with clerks at the bank, or grocery store
Dealing with doctor’s offices
Buying or returning items at a store
Driving (for fear of what other drivers are thinking of you)
Using public restrooms (not due to fear of germs)
Eating in front of other people
Writing or signing name in front of others
Attending social events
Hosting social events
Talking in a small group
Expressing your opinion
Talking about yourself to others
Speaking to a large group
Do you engage in any of these "partial avoidance behaviors"?:
I use alcohol or drugs before entering a feared social situation.
If I attend a social situation, I stay only a certain length of time.
I set other conditions on attendance, such as staying close to a “safe” person.
I frequently try to distract myself by daydreaming or thinking about other things.
I’m likely to avoid eye contact.
These are the physical symptoms I'm likely to experience when I'm anxious:
Hot or cold flashes
Shortness of breath
Tightness in chest
Feelings of weakness
Lump in throat or dry mouth
Feelings of unreality
These are the things I'm likely to be telling myself, either before, during, or after a social situation:
I'm such a loser.
I don't fit in.
Everyone can tell how nervous I am.
I don't have anything interesting to say.
I'm so ugly.
I have to get out of here before embarrass myself anymore.
My voice is quivering.
I sound stupid
People must think I'm crazy.
Everything everyone thinks I'm too quiet.
If I blow it, it's the end of the world.
Other key questions to ask about my reactions to feared social situations:
Does avoidance of these situations interfere with my normal routine?
Does the fear and avoidance interfere with my academic functioning?
Does the fear and avoidance interfere with my occupational functioning?
Does the fear and avoidance interfere with my social activities and relationships?
Does having social anxiety cause me significant pain and distress?
Now review your answers. The more items you’ve checked, the more likely this is not a case of simple shyness.
According to the new DSM-V (the current manual of mental disorders), to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, your fear or anxiety must be out of proportion—in frequency and/or duration—to the actual situation AND your symptoms must be persistent, lasting six months or longer. To be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, you must also suffer significant distress or impairment that interferes with your ordinary routine in social settings, at work or school, or during other everyday activities.
If you think you may have social anxiety disorder, a good first step is to talk with your doctor. Bring this questionnaire to help guide your discussion.
No one should have to limit one's life because of fear. Now, more than ever, there are ways to minimize the harmful effects of unchecked social anxiety. You've taken an important first step by completing this self-assessment questionnaire.
*** My most popular post on my other blog, The Self-Compassion Project is 80+ Self-Care Ideas. Check it out!
Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you
from doing all the things in life
you’d like to.
–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.
Photos by D. Sharon Pruitt via flickr