What It’S Like Having Social Anxiety Disorder At The Busiest Time Of Year

Architecture student Alex remembers exactly where she was last year when the clock struck midnight.

“I went to Woodford and I think the crowd attendance for New Year’s was 150,000 people. It’s a lot of people,” she told Hack.

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“So my best friend and I ditched that and we went to the top of a hill, completely on our own, to bring in the New Year that way, and not be around the friends that we had made while we were there [at the festival].”

You see, Alex is one of the hundreds of thousands of Australians living with social anxiety. Being around crowds and having to socialise isn’t just something she avoids – it’s something that makes her feel sick.

“I recently went to a festival in Queensland for 10 days where I knew one person and it was so much more exhausting being around all these people that I didn’t know than it was to do physical labour for ten hours a day,” she said.

“That takes more of my energy than the actual work does.”

For Alex, the social anxiety became prominent when she started having to do uni presentations.

“We put a lot of effort into our assignments and they’re a direct reflection of us, and [we have] to present that in front of our entire cohort plus anyone else who wants to watch, and then that is critiqued by a panel of industry professionals,” she said.

“They critique it on the spot, in front of everyone.”

You may be thinking that being a little bit anxious about public speaking is normal, and you’d be right. But for people with social anxiety, the impact is much, much greater.

I’ve vomited before, I’ve seen people faint. Physically, I feel so sick.”

“While it’s happening I don’t even know what’s coming out of my mouth – it’s quite dissociative, and I really just want it to be over as soon as possible,” Alex said.

Peter McEvoy is a professor of clinical psychology at Curtin University. He told Hack that social anxiety should be seen as a continuum.

“Most of us would admit to being shy from time to time in at least some social situations; if we don’t know people we might be a little quieter at least. But people who are shy would usually say it’s transitory, it passes. In most situations they would feel comfortable enough to hold a conversation or it wouldn’t hold them back from doing something that was important to them,” he said.

Then there’s social anxiety in certain situations – job interviews and public speaking are two common ones. But Peter said the anxiety disappears once the person is out of that situation.

For people like Alex, social anxiety can take over.

“It really starts to dictate what they’re able to do in their life. So it might restrict the job choices they make, the kind of careers they choose, their ability to establish relationship,” Peter said.

The suffering doesn’t begin and end with the social situation itself.”

“People are often worrying well in advance, so they’re anxious well before they get there. And afterwards they’re ruminating about how it went and beating themselves up for not doing well enough,” he said.

This time of year – when our social calendars are full up with festive commitments – is especially hard for people with social anxiety disorder.

“It’s so crap because it’s so busy,” Alex said.

“Every social event throughout December is obligatory, it’s not something I want to do. Knowing what I’m doing every single day through December, calendar-wise, it produces so much anxiety.”

“I’ll be visiting my boyfriend’s family for Christmas. They have three days of Christmas and there’s 80 people each day,” she said.

Alex can handle meeting strangers – she said she doesn’t owe them anything and they usually have no expectations of her. It’s dealing with friends and family that’s the hardest.

“Last year I didn’t spend Christmas at home and that was a massive disappointment to my family. I just couldn’t be there. I don’t want to do it; it’s not going to be enjoyable for me,” she said.

There’s no possible combination of ways that I haven’t tried to explain to my parents and family why it’s difficult around this time [of year].”

“Why it makes me upset or sad or even a bit lonely for some reason. They just can’t comprehend that,” she said.

Alex isn’t alone. According to Peter, eight per cent of Australians suffer symptoms of social anxiety disorder.

If we assume there’s about 16 million adults in Australia at the moment, about 1.3 million of those will meet criteria at some point in their lives.”

Peter said people who are worried they have social anxiety disorder should see their GPs and ask for a mental health plan, or test out apps and online courses that can help manage milder symptoms.

Alex tried a lot of non-clinical techniques, but they didn’t take.

“I went to the doctor and said, I can not succeed in uni because of this level of anxiety. I’ve been getting counselling and therapy for at least 10 years and I haven’t found any techniques that work,” she said.

He prescribed me with valium, basically, for when I do have to make these presentations, and that honestly made all the difference.”

Her medication has seen her excel at uni.

“Because of that I’ve done really well at uni so far. I’m on a scholarship, I have a really great grade point average,” she said.

And she’s looking forward to the end of the year, when her social schedule finally slows down.

“It’s ridiculously. I can not wait for it to be over. My countdown is on,” Alex said.

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