Are you fearful about going to places you’ve never been before, or of being around people you don’t know? Ever make big plans to go out and do something fun — only to find that morning you just can’t face it? If so, you may have social anxiety. Symptoms like panic attacks, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, or feeling worried all the time can indicate a condition called social anxiety disorder. If you feel like social anxiety is getting in the way of living your life, there are helpful resources available.
No one is sure how social anxiety develops, but it’s likely a combination of learned behavior and genetics, and may be exacerbated by environmental factors. Childhood abuse, bullying, ridicule, or living through divorce or disaster carry a high probability of developing social anxiety. At any given time, about 15 million people suffer from this disorder. The result can be low self-esteem, poor school and job performance, unsatisfying relationships, and more.
But anxiety can be helpful, even life saving. Gavin de Becker goes on at length in The Gift of Fear about how anxiety can tell us when something is wrong or when there is danger. Anxiety only becomes a problem when it activates during normal, non-dangerous circumstances.
So what’s the good news? Studies show social phobias or chronic anxiety often lead to increased empathy and a desire to nurture others — especially in non-face-to-face interactions such as social media. That means some of the most vocal, outgoing, seemingly confident people on Facebook and Twitter are also the least likely to meet up with you in person. Having social anxiety brings increased understanding of the struggles faced by other people, and greater tolerance toward those whose behaviors many would find questionable. In short — those who suffer from social anxiety are more empathetic, and have a greater ability and desire to understand those around them. If you know someone with social anxiety, chances are they are a kind person, a loyal friend, and someone who can be trusted with your innermost secrets. Your friend with social anxiety is more likely to text you after you post about having a bad day. They’re the one who sends a care package, but would never call you on the phone. They’re the classmate who is happy to help you after class, but never wants to talk in front of everyone.
I wonder if this increased empathy and skill at reading the emotions of others is similar to the way these skills develop in abused children. The evidence suggests that it is. This makes sense logically, since going through something awful allows us to more clearly see when someone else is going through something similar.
Does this super-empathy mean social anxiety is a walk in the park? Hardly. But if you know someone who deals with this, you should know they are not standoffish or stuck up. They don’t think they’re “better than” you, or “too good” for the event you invited them to. In fact, they could become the best friend you’ve never had.