If you're someone who suffers from social anxiety, you know there are certain things you absolutely dread hearing. Often, friends, family members, and even coworkers say these utterances with the best of intentions. You know, they just want you to come to the company holiday party and have fun. Doesn't it sound easy when they put it like that? The spirit behind these comments are almost always good: These people genuinely love your company and want you to enjoy yourself. But if you have social anxiety, which generally involves an intense fear of criticism and judgement from others, spending too much time with people can be a source of legitimate stress.
Many people who have social anxiety feel an immense amount of pressure to perform the "right" or "correct" way, even in a casual atmosphere like a holiday luncheon. And in spite of the stereotype that it's just "in your head," people with social anxiety often experience physical symptoms including intense blushing, excess sweating, trembling hands, and dizziness. When social anxiety is in high-drive, it doesn't always matter how great the food is or how many of your friends are with you. Mental illness is never a choice, and social anxiety is no exception.
At the end of the day, people with social anxiety will all handle their illnesses differently. There are an array of coping mechanisms and approaches to best handling the disorder. Many people see a mental health professional for a combination of therapy and medication. It's fair to be point out, too, that people have different "triggers," so what might go over just fine with one person who suffers from social anxiety might be very much not OK for another. Either way, though, here are a few things it's best to avoid saying to someone who has social anxiety as a general rule:
1. "It's All In Your Head."
Telling someone with any form of mental illness that it's "all in their head" is generally a horrible idea, and this is no exception. Even if your intentions are excellent, the message ultimately comes across as demeaning and dismissive of what is a legitimate and serious illness.
2. "You'll Feel Better Once You Get Out."
Now, there are definitely studies that show a positive correlation with the impact exercise has on mental health. There are even studies that show that simply being outside in nature can help ease anxiety. However, for people who suffer from social anxiety disorder, access to safe spaces is integral. Essentially, people with social anxiety will often desire some time alone in their own safe environment — whether it's going home, sitting in a car, taking a walk around the block alone, or something else entirely — to process what's going on around them.
People who suffer from social anxiety often feel like they're ultra-aware of everything going on around them, so it's easy to feel overstimulated or overwhelmed. While it's important to invite people with social anxiety to spend time with you, and it's good to support them in the tasks they pursue, it's also important not to pressure or guilt them into doing something they don't actually want to do.
3. "Are You Sure This Isn't Just For Attention?"
Like telling someone that their illness is "all in their head," chalking a condition like social anxiety up to "just being for attention" minimizes the very real struggles people with it face on a daily basis. Yes, it can be frustrating to be on the receiving end of things like plans being cancelled at the last minute, but if it's the result of social anxiety, it's definitely not just for attention.
4. "You Should Smile More."
Women in general hear this one way too often, but for people with social anxiety, it can feel like a slap in the face. For many people with social anxiety, there's already a fear of being monitored and judged, so to have someone suggest that they need to smile more (or laugh more, or essentially be someone other than themselves) can feel like a nightmare coming true. Even if someone doesn't intend to come across harshly, a suggestion like "you should smile more" can come across as a criticism or a command instead.
5. "Didn't I Already Tell You That?"
For people with social anxiety, it can feel like you're never right. There's an impulse to constantly question yourself and those around you, not because you doubt them, but because you want to make sure you heard them correctly. You want to make sure you remember each detail and get everything "right." To others, this can come across like you're unnecessarily asking for clarification or that you weren't listening in the first place. Of course, no one is a mind-reader, so it's very possible when people are annoyed at this, they simply don't realize you're approaching the situation from a position of legitimate fear and anxiety. Still, if you find yourself getting annoyed with someone who has social anxiety (or, let's be on the safe side here and say just about anyone), just remind yourself to be patient and clarify the information without reading into it as an insult or sign of disinterest.
So, there you have it! If you suffer from social anxiety, you're definitely not alone. In fact, roughly 15 million American adults have social anxiety disorder. While seeking help can feel scary, it's important to see a mental health professional and talk about the treatment options that may work best for you — because at the end of the day, there is nothing more valuable than your health.