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Writing Mental Health: Social Anxiety

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Fri Apr 19, 2019 12:46 pm
Jaybird says...

One of the protagonists in my novel has social anxiety. I want to make sure I realistically portray it while also avoiding any stereotypes associated with people who have social anxiety, so I thought I'd ask about it here.

If you have social anxiety, know someone who has social anxiety or have done research on writing characters who have social anxiety, please tell me all about it here. Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated!
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Fri Apr 19, 2019 3:29 pm
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ShadowVyper says...

Social anxiety is one of those that I'm pretty sure has a vast spectrum of manifestations so I can't speak to it definitively, but I can share the way my social anxiety affects me.

Generally the stereotypes I see of social anxiety is someone who is awkward and shy and avoids eye contact and social interactions entirely. Mine is a bit different. Mine tends to be me just being extremely quiet. Like I'm naturally a pretty quiet person, but I do contribute to conversations, and I do put myself in social situations. When I'm in a big group I feel like my chest gets tight and I practice what I want to say over and over and over again trying to get the courage up to say it -- and generally by the time I have the guts, the conversation has moved on and my comment is no longer relevant.

To be clear, that doesn't happen with my close friends. At my undergrad there was a group of about 8 science majors that I regularly hung out with and I'm totally comfortable around them and I'm dramatic and theatrical with them and will cut in with whatever I want to say. But like, in my current program there are people who are my "friends" and I hang out with them sometimes, I still feel very guarded around them so it's hard for me to express myself. And class discussions? That's just pure hell.

When I am forced to speak in one of the class discussions especially (though it also happens in groups of my "friends") my hands get really nervous. I have literally given myself calluses in the past because I'm picking at my hands while I talk and don't realize how much damage I'm causing until afterwards.

I also make eye contact (albeit it's generally a really quick contact and then I find someone else to look at because prolonged eye contact makes me uncomfortable lol) but I generally tend to phrase what I have to say as a question. Like when someone says something I know is factually untrue and I want to call them out on it, I won't be like "No, you're wrong, it's not like that. This is how it really is." It'll come out more like "Are you sure? I'm pretty sure/I thought it was like this?"

And if they keep arguing with me then I generally just drop it. I'll get really frustrated and might complain about them later to my friend, but unless it's something that /really/ annoys me on them claiming they're right when they're wrong then I won't argue about it. And if I do argue it takes a lot out of me emotionally and I generally try to distance myself from that person for a little while until I feel like I'm back to normal.

Getting called on in class is really awful for me too. I pay attention and follow along and when the prof asks a question I try to figure out the answer -- but if I'm not absolutely sure what the answer is (which happens extremely rarely lol) then I get this surge of hell-ish adrenaline with my chest getting tight and heart racing and it just being entirely awful.

However, on the opposite side of things, at my small group at church we have some really extroverted, socially aggressive people in my group so I tend not to be able to assert myself enough to get into the conversation because you have to kinda interrupt people to talk (not like a rude way, but like when people start trailing off with a "you know what I'm say--" and then someone else will cut in and be like "yeah for sure, I think--" and so like there's overlap) and I /will not/ do that. Even if I have something to say, and I've practiced it in my head, and I want to say it -- if someone else is talking, even trailing off, then I will NOT cut in. It has to be silent for me to speak because even tho I know it's not considered rude to have that overlap, in my mind I feel really rude doing that and it's kind of giving me lowkey anxiety right now just thinking about it lol. So there's this one guy who really likes hearing my perspective on things, so sometimes /he/ will cut into the conversation and be like "So what do you think about this, Shady?" And then there's a silence while people wait for me to answer that question that was explicitly directed towards me and then I get a chance to talk. And I really appreciate people like that.

There's another guy in my current "friend" group who is socially respected, and sometimes if I do cut into a conversation with my opinion people will start talking over me and so I'll just kind of stop talking and he will be like "Guys! I'm trying to listen to what Shady is saying!" and I also really appreciate that. Like people who not only pay attention to me and actually want to hear what I have to say, but who will use their confidence to get me the space I need to be able to talk because my anxiety will not let me exert myself like that.

I feel like I'm rambling at this point lol. If you have any specific questions/situations that you'd like input on I'd be happy to give my perspective on that, but for now I'm going to end this.
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Sat Apr 20, 2019 12:56 am
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Tuckster says...

My experience with social anxiety isn't debilitatingly severe, but it's still affected my life to the point where I feel qualified to share my experience. It tends to mostly manifest itself in me just second-guessing everything I'm about to say and then deciding not to say it. For example, someone in the group that I'm hanging out with will say something, and I'll want to say something but second-guess myself. I'll wonder what people will think about me if I say this or that, and so I'll pause and think about it, consider all the possible ramifications. By the time I'm done doing that, the conversation has moved on.

So I end up just not saying anything at all. At school during lunch, I always sit with the same group and have been for the vast majority of the school year, and it's still pretty common for me to literally not say a word the entire lunch period. I open up more as I get to know people, and when I'm very comfortable with people, I just rattle on and on about the same topic.

I'll also do things like refuse to get up to get a tissue during class because I don't want to be conspicuous, hold my trash in my hand so I don't seem weird getting up. I had a mild panic attack in a restaurant once because I didn't know what to order. I practice what I'm going to say multiple times before I say it. When I read in class, I read the entire passage in my head and practice saying it mentally before I have to read it out loud.

Another huge thing for me is over-analyzing. I'm not sure if this is a social anxiety thing or just a general anxiety thing, but I'll over-analyze everything anybody does to me. If I haven't heard from a friend in over 24 hours, I'll start to panic but don't want to reach out because I don't want to come across as clingy. I'll think about the smallest actions for years, constantly replay scenes in my mind and imagine what I should have done. It's exhausting, unproductive, and I can't stop doing it.

If you have any specific questions, I'd be happy to answer them! Hopefully my experiences are helpful to you, and I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors! I also wanted to mention that I really appreciate you taking the time to research the real-life effects of these disorders on people's lives and the care you are taking to accurately represent these different disorders.
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Sat Apr 20, 2019 1:26 pm
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Jaybird says...

Thanks for the help, both of you! <3 I don't have any specific questions right now, but I'll make sure to ask them when I do think of them. I think it just really helps hearing people's stories with different mental health issues - I know not everyone goes through the same experience, so it lets me understand how my character might experience it.
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Wed May 01, 2019 11:55 pm
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Carlito says...

My social anxiety is not nearly as bad as it used to be. I first remember feeling it in late elementary school, it peaked in high school, and then spiraled into more generalized anxiety in college :p

I think the biggest thing for me was being terrified of what other people thought of me. I wanted zero attention. I didn't want people to think of me at all. I had a nice friend group and got along with people fine, but I didn't share personal information about myself with anyone. For example, if I liked someone, no matter how much my friends pressed me, I wouldn't share. My fear was that they would judge who I had a crush on, that my crush would find out, what my crush would think if they found out, what other people would think of me or think of me liking this person if they found out, etc.

I was terrified of being embarrassed. When my friends and I would do stuff together, I hated having my picture taken because I was afraid I would look dumb and people would think I look dumb, ugly, bad hair, bad outfit, etc. I was the photographer and videographer of our friend group because I was scared to do something potentially embarrassing on camera that people would then see and judge.

Getting called on in class or having to talk in front of the class was a nightmare. I didn't perceive myself as smart as other peers in my classes (even though my grades were good) and was afraid of looking stupid or that other people would think I'm stupid or that I would say the wrong thing or not be as eloquent or well-spoken as people that talked often in class.

I could talk and laugh and hang out and have fun with my friends no problem and I'm still friends with several of my friends from high school, but I definitely had a wall up and wasn't very confident in myself. I wouldn't even say I was super shy (shyer than I am now, but not like a total mouse), I could talk with people when they initiated the conversation, but I was always terrified of how I was being perceived and what the other person was thinking of me.

Happy to answer any questions you may have! :D
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Thu May 02, 2019 3:47 am
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Lauren2010 says...

You've got a lot of good responses here bit I just wanted to add my experience! I've been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder as well as social anxiety. My understanding is social anxiety usually comes with other types of anxiety, but that may not be true for everyone. But it has been my experience!

For me, I experience a lot of what has been mentioned above: fear of bring embarrassed, difficulty speaking up in social situations (especially among strangers/people who aren't close friends), fear of saying the wrong thing, not wanting attention, etc. Most of this comes together in my most difficult issue: avoidance. My social anxiety got to such a level where I was actively avoiding social situations, isolating myself at home. It didn't help that I'm in a new city and don't have an established social circle. I spent time with my partner and that was pretty much it.

Now I'm in therapy and actively working against my anxiety disorder(s), which basically involves forcing myself to do all the things I'm afraid of and seeking out social situations. But the one interesting thing lately with this process is that I'm not as much of an introvert as I thought I was. Social anxiety led me to believe I was deeply introverted when in reality I enjoy being around people and socializing (with managed anxiety) makes me happy. This isn't true for everyone, of course! But has been my experience as I've worked to manage my mental illness through therapy and some great self care tools.

Also happy to answer questions! Hope that helped :)
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