In his own words: living with social anxiety disorder
As told to Elissa Sonnenberg, MSEd
Jason, a 27-year-old computer animator, lives in Arizona with his wife. He has been dealing with social anxiety since college. He enjoys reading, playing basketball, and building three-dimensional computer models. He also works part-time for an organization dedicated to social anxiety disorders.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
I never really had any problems until I got to college—I was about 20. I was required to take a speech class; there was no way to get around it. Normally, people with social anxiety are pretty good at avoiding what they fear. So I was able to get up in front of the group and give a short talk, but once it was over, I'd always be worrying about the next speech. There was no consistency to my symptoms—it could be sweaty armpits, sweaty face, sweaty hands, a shaky voice, or twitching. I could never tell which one, or all, was going to hit.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
I self-diagnosed. I started reading books on shyness and social anxiety. I joined a Toastmasters group (a group devoted to improving public speaking skills) for about a year to eradicate the problem myself. I got better as a speaker, but the way I perceived my performance was still distorted. Eventually I went to a local organization that offered different therapies for social anxiety.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
It was a relief at first because there was actually a name for it. It was something I could put a handle on. Then I found out there were different treatments available that can get you better. I knew I was on a better road.
How is social anxiety disorder treated?
I used various aspects of comprehensive cognitive behavioral therapy. The therapy gave me the tools I needed to deal with my anxiety. I had to identify that having at least some degree of nervousness is normal. Now, I try to remain as calm as possible. I feel more in control. I also take an antidepressant daily. Sometimes, with a more anxiety-arousing situation, I take an additional medication. But, I'm using that less now as I continue to work on the tools I learned in therapy.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to social anxiety disorder?
My life is pretty much the same; it's just a lot more comfortable now. I don't worry as much anymore. I don't get down on myself as much if something doesn't go how I wanted it to. I'm motivated to do things more now. I had been depressed because my anxiety held me back, but the depression associated with social anxiety is gone for the most part.
Before, I would only do certain things if I absolutely had to. I used to work for a corporation where I was required to go on trips and train people—I would take that to the line of almost being fired before I would agree to go on a trip. Now my part-time job (working with social anxiety patients) allows me to see other people’s progress, which encourages me as well.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
It was really important to me that my parents and wife supported me. That was a big deal. Even my friends were supportive. Unless someone has dealt with the mental and emotional pain of social anxiety first-hand, it's hard to understand. It helped me to have people around me who made an effort to understand that this is something more than just being shy.
Does social anxiety disorder have an impact on your family?
I know social anxiety affects my wife to some degree, but she has gone through the trials of having a mental illness herself, so she has a lot of empathy for me. Just knowing she is there to listen motivates me to keep me going.
What advice would you give to anyone living with this disease?
Seek out information first. Get a book on social anxiety, read through it and see if you can identify with it. You want to do research and study on your own. Before I started, it was important for me to understand what full recovery meant. Now I would say that it's more important to focus on the process, or you'll lose sight of the progress you're making today.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.
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