Like many things in life, I’m still waiting for the time when I can walk in a room full of strangers and not feel my legs turn to liquid. Or the ability to stand up in front of my family and friends and make a toast. But although I am allegedly older and wiser, I still can’t handle these situations and wonder if I ever will be able to.
I always assumed maturity would bring with it some peace of mind. That, by now, I’d be able to sit alone in a cafe waiting for a friend without sweating, fidgeting and obsessing over what people must think of me.
But I haven’t. Instead, I’ve learned to cope. By artfully dodging invitations, always showing up half an hour late and never raising my glass, I’ve found a way to cling to the walls where no one will notice me, or see my trembling hands.
In case some of this sounds familiar, let me tell you: there’s a name for it. Appropriately, it is sometimes called SAD – social anxiety disorder – otherwise known as social phobia.
A slippery and almost undefinable condition, SAD means you simply cannot bear attention. You spend time and energy worrying about what people will think about you or say to you. What if someone criticises you? Or worse, laughs? What if they humiliate you in public, or draw attention to you so others can see that you’re doing something wrong?
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SAD, along with other anxiety disorders, are generally overlooked when it comes to the health of our generation. It was previously believed that anxiety was the kind of thing you grew out of. I, for one, have heard many women my age say they “no longer care” what people think.
Well, I care very much. And sometimes I care so much I go out of my way to avoid being in a situation where I might be found out.
I have recently learned that researchers now say social phobia, and anxiety as a whole, actually increases with age. I could have told them that!
These days, alongside the legion of worries that have always plagued me, are fears of slipping over in public, having a “senior moment” like forgetting my PIN or losing my car in the car park, and being swindled by a stranger. Sometimes it really is easier not to go out at all.
I am lucky, however, to have a family that drags me, kicking and screaming (not really, I daren’t make a fuss) into the real world. I was always a “nervous child” but it’s only now, after decades of creeping around the world quietly, that I am prepared to address this issue, give it a name, and challenge myself every day to overcome it.
Do you suffer for social phobia or another anxiety disorder? Is it getting worse or have you found ways to cope? Share your stories below. Let’s not suffer alone.