Bringing this post back for this month’s Down Wit Dat T21 Blog Hop
I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about anxiety recently. When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, I was also diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Here’s how I feel about that: Social Anxiety? Yes. Disorder? Not so much.
Disorder implies that my social anxiety is irrational. Is it? Consider this:
“Anxiety at appropriate levels is important for adaptive functioning. There are many environmental hazards that must be avoided and these are often learned through the process of anxiety induction. The resultant anxiety response is learned through the association of certain stimuli with unpleasant consequences.” (from “Autism and the Physiology of Stress and Anxiety”, Romanczyk and Gillis)
Anxiety, like fear, protects us from danger. It raises our guard and makes us wary. In this way, it’s healthy. Without it, we might be less motivated to get an education, to work, to care for our loved ones and ourselves.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a state of worry, concern or dread related to something that hasn’t yet happened and may, in fact, never happen. Think about some things that we typically feel anxious about:
- committing to a relationship
- giving a major presentation for school or work
- becoming a parent
- meeting a partner’s family
- starting a new job
- learning to drive
- flying on an airplane for the first time
- traveling in a high crime area
When you feel anxious about an upcoming event, you spend more time thinking about it and preparing for it than you would for a more mundane activity. You examine the possible consequences and give extra attention to your actions to ensure the best possible outcome. Anxiety heightens your awareness; heightened awareness sharpens your focus, increasing your safety.
It’s important to note that here and throughout this piece, when I talk about anxiety, I’m referring to appropriate levels of anxiety, not paralyzing anxiety. An appropriate level of anxiety is one that is manageable. I feel nervous in the days before giving an important Powerpoint presentation, but I manage my anxiety and complete the presentation to the best of my ability. An inappropriate level of anxiety is one that prevents a person from completing a necessary or desired activity. For example, if I got so anxious about the presentation that I ended up sick in bed, fainted in the conference room, or lied to avoid presenting.
Not all anxiety is healthy and it’s important to recognize where your anxiety falls on the healthy/unhealthy continuum.
The Function of Social Anxiety in ASD
So that’s how anxiety works in the typical brain. But what about in the autistic brain?
From childhood, autistic people know that we’re missing key information in social situations. We often have difficulty interpreting facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and non-concrete speech. Some people also struggle with auditory processing and sensory overload in public or group settings.
The results of our social communication challenges can range from inconvenient (missing a joke or not following a conversation) to dangerous (being bullied, taken advantage of or assaulted). There are also negative health consequences–many autistic people need hours or days to physically recover from prolonged or intense social interaction.
Over time, “through the process of anxiety induction,” we realize that certain social situations are “environmental hazards that must be avoided” (as Romanczyk and Gillis described). In other words, because of a very real hazard, we develop anxiety that for us has a very real cause. It isn’t disordered. It’s a defense mechanism, developed through “the association of certain stimuli with unpleasant consequences.”
Social anxiety is, therefore, not only “important for adaptive functioning” in autistic people, it’s essential.
Red Light, Green Light
Autistic social anxiety is not the same as neurotypical social anxiety. If a person with intact social communication abilities has severe anxiety about social situations, then they have a disorder because their fear is irrational. When a person with impaired social communication abilities has anxiety about social situations, they are like a poor swimmer who is anxious about boarding a boat. The perceived risk is real and rational.
If fear is a red light–a glowing “stop” signal in our brain–then anxiety is a yellow light. It’s the feeling that says, “slow down, caution, stop and pause a moment before continuing down this road.”
We should heed this feeling, not cure ourselves of it.
Appropriate vs. Inappropriate
But, some will say, too much social anxiety and you’ll become a recluse! A hermit! The little old lady shouting at those darn kids to get off her lawn!
Well, yes and no. First of all, allow me to horrify the more socially oriented among you by saying this: people aren’t all that interesting and the rewards of socializing are sometimes overrated. Consider the possibility that all of the following (fictional) people are meeting their needs for social interaction:
- the person who lives alone, works at home and in the evening participates in role-playing games, an acting workshop and a drumming circle
- the person who lives with a partner and has lunch once a week with a close friend
- the person who attends classes full-time and prefers to socialize online in text-based formats outside of class hours
- the person who chooses to spend time at home with family and only goes out for necessary errands or events
- the person who works around people all day and likes to spend their evenings alone
The social preferences of these people may differ from the majority of their peers, but they aren’t exactly in Grey Gardens territory.
Being anxious about socializing is not the same as completely avoiding social situations. It’s possible to manage social anxiety in the same way we manage anxiety about other things. Someone–NT or autistic–might feel anxious about starting a new job, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do it. Most people have strategies for managing anxiety and autistic people are no different.
What is different is that our social anxiety is automatically pathologized and then “treated” with therapy or medication. We’re told that our fear is irrational and we need to change the way we “think about” social interaction. We’re told that if we just “relax a little” we’ll find social interaction much more enjoyable.
What would be far more helpful is to acknowledge our anxiety as valid and support our right to socialize at our preferred level, in our preferred ways, without being stigmatized for it.
What Anxiety Tells Us
So how does social anxiety keep us safe?
First there is the obvious example: when you have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, it can be hard to know when another person is a threat. This can be especially true for autistic women and girls, increasing our chances of becoming the target of sexual assault, sexual abuse or domestic violence. The autistic woman who feels anxious about dating, intimate relationships or venturing into unfamiliar situations has good reason to–the statistics for violence against autistic women are alarming.
Autistic people are also often victims of bullying. The autistic boy or girl who is anxious about recess or the school bus has a large databank of negative interactions feeding that anxiety. Their anxiety tells them that unstructured activities with limited adult supervision are a potential danger zone.
Those are both reasonable examples, right? But what about the anxiety-inducing holiday party, trip to the mall, or vacation? Surely that’s irrational?
Not if you’re forced to think about every social activity in terms of cost. There are many analogies for this concept: spoon theory and the social cup vs. bucket analogy are the most popular. I’ll spare you a new analogy and give you an example instead.
Last spring my nephew and his wife came to visit for a long weekend. He’s one of my favorite nephews and I was looking forward to meeting his new wife. Still, I was anxious. Having two additional people in the house for three days would mean a disrupted schedule, unfamiliar noises and smells, a loss of my precious alone time and lots and lots of talking.
The Scientist and I came up with a schedule–scheduling is essential for me to get through three days of company–and then I set about thinking of ways to conserve my resources. I volunteered to drive because I find it relaxing. We scheduled downtime for me on Saturday afternoon while everyone else went out. I suggested we visit a historical site that I knew well, because it would mean a familiar environment plus the chance to infodump in a socially acceptable way.
We had a great time. They enjoyed the places we visited and the meals I cooked. We laughed a lot and had meaningful conversations. Things couldn’t have gone better. And still, Saturday night as everyone sat around the dinner table talking for hours after the meal was finished, I found myself shaking uncontrollably.
Even with all of my planning, even though I was enjoying myself, the day’s socializing had overwhelmed me. I knew it was coming, had felt myself shutting down as the evening wore on, but I ignored the warning signs. I didn’t want to end a great day on a bad note.
Unfortunately, it’s not about what I want. Social interaction has a real physical cost for autistic people. If I don’t listen to the voice of caution in my head and limit my interactions, my body will eventually take over and limit them for me.
When I’m in a situation where I feel comfortable, I can handle longer interactions. If I have to deal with unstructured activities, unfamiliar places, new people, rapid shifts in conversation partners or topics, or any of a long list of other things I find challenging, I’ll hit my limit sooner. An hour might be all I can deal with before I start feeling a strong need to escape.
Since being diagnosed with Asperger’s, I’m getting better at “reading” myself. The anxiety, the need to escape, the withdrawal that precedes the uncontrollable shaking–these are not things I need to be cured of. They are signs that I need to take care–yellow lights to be heeded–and I’m learning to listen to them.
77 thoughts on “My Anxiety is Not Disordered”
Reblogged this on Shania's song..
This is wonderful. When my son was taking medication we saw a child psychiatrist and i questioned her once about posibly giving him anti anxiety medication. It seemed so much of his issues flowed from anxiety and shouldn’t we be assisting him with that if we could through medication. She told me anxiety meds were great for people experiencing and unreasonable amount of anxiety over situations but that given who my son was, his trouble reading social queues and impulse control struggles, it was perfectly reasonable that he experience the anxiety that he did around his school day. It was a real eye opener for me.
It’s been an eye opener for me too. I wish the view held by your son’s psychiatrist was one that more mental health professionals had. Even though I pointed out to the doc who diagnosed me that I don’t have paralyzing anxiety (heart racing, sweating, nauseous, etc.) and that I participate in activities in spite of sometimes feeling low to medium anxiety about them, he still insisted that I had an anxiety disorder. It kind of pissed me off. 🙂
So well said. I think you have nailed the difference in having an attribute and having a disorder. An attribute is something that is part of your make up. It becomes a disorder when it disables you and makes you unable to function. The goal of interventions is to turn a disorder into an attribute. I think this plays into autism as a whole. Those of us on the spectrum want to change things through interventions, accommodations and supports so that our our autism is an attribute. We don’t want our autistic nature taken away from us, we just don’t want it to be crippling.
John Mark McDonald
I like the attribute/disorder paradigm. It’s definitely a matter of degrees and I know that anxiety can be paralyzing for some people, but I think that dialing it down to a manageable but still present trait is preferable to completely eliminating it in my case. Your last sentence really nails it in a nutshell.
*Such* a wonderful way to put it. Mind if I use that as a quote for some people, and maybe in my own blog? (Full credit, of course!)
You can quote me anytime.
John Mark McDonald
Yay! Thank you! (Should I refer to you as JMM or Scintor? (I’ve got the quote and your sig saved in my Evernote “Notable Quotables” note…. 🙂 )
Scintor works quite well.
Both my children are autistic, but they are affected in different ways. Both my children have anxiety issues that are debilitating enough that they both need medication. My daughter also has bipolar and separation anxiety on top of the anxiety associated with autism. She also has trouble focusing. I have been told that it is more of an ADD thing that you typically see in children with bipolar. Having autism and bipolar at the same time is a difficult thing. Some medication to treat bipolar can make the anxiety associated with autism worse and not all medications for bipolar work for all people, especially children. It took years to find the right combination of medications to stablize her. My son’s anxiety has more to do with social situations and the fact that he worries about the “what ifs” of the next day. It was interfering with his sleeping and he dreaded going to school. Seeing the amount of cars in a parking lot immediately causes his anxiety to spike. I will hear him mumble, “all those people . . ” He also seems to have a form of ADD where he gets distracted by what is going on in his head. He once told me that he has a whole universe in his head and he goes on adventures. He is on a low dose anti-anxiety medication that also helps him to stay more focused. It is so sublte that he doesn’t even notice that it is doing anything, but his teachers and I have noticed. He is doing better. I didn’t like to have to put my children on medication, but it had gotten to the point where we had to.
I think you hit on what I tried to convey about the difference between healthy and unhealthy levels of anxiety. It sounds like children experience anxiety at levels that make it hard for them focus/relax. I completely understand the need to help them dial it down to a level where they can participate in daily activities. Co-occuring conditions also really complicate the picture.
I remember being afraid and anxious a lot as a kid. There were periods when I was terrified of going to school (mostly related to bullying but also related to my ASD traits). I internalized those feelings to the point that I developed OCD symptoms and other issues. I think it’s especially hard to cope with anxiety when we’re very young and have so little control over our lives? Especially for those of us on the spectrum who feel that control=safety.
This post… yes, just yes.
This is what I’ve been trying to tell my psychologist! (Who I just fired. XD But still.) My social anxiety is not without cause, nor is it irrational. Now, if only I didn’t just come off as intelligent and artsy to adults. Only people my age think I’m strange because I’m more anxious around them. I can hide it with adults because I’m more comfortable, if that makes sense.
That makes complete sense. Actually one of the signs of ASD is being comfortable around adults/people older than you. This only holds true until you become an actual adult, at which time you magically become more comfortable around 5-year-olds. 🙂
Heehee, I’m more comfortable around anyone who isn’t my age. I love children- they’re glorious. Unfortunately, I tend to view them more as friends than charges… and it can lead to problems. XP
Unfortunately, being a middle aged man who gets along with children better than adults, causes all sorts of panic.
John Mark McDonald
And then when you have to discipline them, they look at you all surprised, right? It’s a delicate balance for sure.
A wonderful post, as usual. Will be tweeting it out, because it’s also an *important* post, I think. You’ve really hit the nail on the head with your details about healthy vs. unhealthy anxiety, and the fact that social anxiety is *healthy* for autistics (at least to a certain extent – I know I’ve occasionally (or more) felt it to a debilitating extent). Will also be emailing it to people who don’t follow me on Twitter. *grins*
Have I mentioned how much I love your posts? You provide a huge amount of information, and put it in a form that’s easy for both allistics and autistics to understand. Yay you!
Aw, thank you for the kind words. It especially makes me happy when you say that my posts are easy to understand because I struggle with that at times and spend a lot of time editing all the extra words out. 🙂
I have at times had unhealthy anxiety but I’m also married to a guy who will shove me out of my comfort zone and then hold my hand when necessary. Before that, I think my parents did a pretty good job of making sure that I did things even though I was anxious about them. So I guess I’ve learned that anxiety will be a regular companion and I’m even working on embracing it, thanks to something Ariane (@emmashopebook) said a while back.
I’m not *too* bad with anxiety most times lately, but I definitely used to be, and I still sometimes feel the need to just hide under the covers and not get out, because I’m too anxious to face what’s coming up today. I’m not allowed to, though.
Interestingly enough, Imber (my cat) is being medicated with amytriptyline (think that’s spelled right!) for anxiety issues. Happens to all of us!
And like I said in my email, I really do think your posts are great. I’ve read through a lot of them so far, and I really think that you have an ability to hit the nail on the head. I know what you mean about searching for the right words and editing a whole bunch of stuff out, though. *grins wryly*
Again, yay for you!
It’s good to hear that you’re finding your anxiety more manageable. I think I’ve gone through stages in my life where it wanes and stages where it’s stronger, but I just keep keeping on. 🙂
Have you read ” The Power of Neurodiversity” by Dr, Thomas Armstrong? He has a chapter called ” The Advantages of Anxiety” that you might really enjoy.
Oooh, book rec! Yay! Thanks, Unstrange Mind! (Hope you’re doing well.)
I haven’t but thank you for the rec. I just finished “Stress and Coping in Autism” and I’m on an Oliver Sacks jag right now but I’ll add this to my reading list.
The Armstrong book sounds good. I’ve got “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” and Dale Carnegie’s “Stop Worrying and Start Living” beside me as we speak. I have drawn a line in the sand and have decided not to get anxious about things that aren’t a worry anymore. You might enjoy this post it shares my anxiety about missing the bus and yet when I was seriously choking on the train, I was relatively calm.
I really like the graphics you use on your site. Many of them reinforce the text nicely.
I especially liked the “still life” picture. DId you take the photograph (or create it) yourself?
Thank you! I didn’t make the still life. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?
Some of the photos I use are from Morgue File, including both of the photos in this post. Their images are royalty free but the TOS require you to alter the photo in some way. Fortunately, I’m handy with Photoshop and willing to spend a lot of time looking for something I really like for each post. 🙂
Thank you, again, for your writing. This, I think, is a big part of the reason I’m trying to get a diagnosis. I’m on medication for depression and anxiety, and I’m in therapy for low self esteem, but I feel like all the treatment I’m getting is aimed squarely at allistics and a lot of it just doesn’t fit for me. It’s no use getting told that my anxiety and my fear of messing up a social situation is irrational and that, really, I’m just as capable of social interaction as any other person when the problem is only partly due to low self esteem, but partly due to the very real fact that I often miss contextual and non-verbal cues and genuinely am more likely to stumble into a problem because of that. I feel like autism self advocacy and blogs like this one are doing much more to help my self esteem than my weekly power point shows at the psychiatric hospital, because this is helping me accept myself as autistic rather than drill the message into me that I am just like everyone else and therefore ok. I’m not just like everyone else. But I am ok.
Comments like this one make my day. Not the part where you’re struggling so much–because that’s painful to read and it’s so hard to find therapists who are familiar with adult ASD. But it’s heartening to read that the writings of adult autistics are helpful to you, because I feel like so much of this stuff is us finding our own way and hopefully making it a little easier for each other. I learn a ton from other autistic bloggers as well. We’re lucky to have each other. 🙂
Another excellent post. I really look forward to reading what you write. I read this tonight just after a full day of meetings, over 8 hours! and the put-down parting comment from my colleague about my having to go away and “be alone without people” – like, yeah!
I don’t. enjoy. people. I like some people, sometimes I have a laugh with people. But generally, no. People are dangerous because they are unpredictable and confusing because when I talk to people their replys often sound like speech intersperted with blank or white noise. I miss bits of conversations all the time and have to rapidly construct what i think is being said. It’s hard work! And I agree with Pi that your blog and others like it from autistic adults are so very much needed. We are different and our difference is perfectly valid and okay.
I think after an 8-hour day of meetings, people should be allowed to do whatever the heck they want, without having to take guff from a colleague! Yeesh.
I’m with you on the difficulties in getting the right message from spoken words. There are days when I get tired of hearing myself ask people what they just said. But it’s that or guess and risk being wrong/missing something.
Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to comment after your very long day. 🙂
After the third “what” I just smile and nod and pretend I understood.
John Mark McDonald
Yes, I often resort to that too for fear of driving people bonkers.
…sorry, I should have spell-checked that reply! It has been a very long day! I meant to say ‘interspersed’ with blank or white noise.
I love this post. I’m in college, and usually I’m able to manage my anxiety quite well, only occasionally taking a trip to the bathroom to escape company at the lunch table. Last semester I took public speaking (it was a requirement), and it was the first time in my 3.5 years there that I was so anxious that I stimmed, stuttered, and shook. Twice a week I went to class, and twice a week, I sat there miserably, feeling my awkward idiosyncrasies take over. Thinking about it, in high school and earlier, I was laughed at while speaking in class and always had teachers tell me to speak louder, which would raise my anxiety level tremendously, and I think this accounts for why I was so anxious every day.
Your quote from above: “the person who attends classes full-time and prefers to socialize online in text-based formats outside of class hours” is definitely me to a T. that and hanging out with my family mostly. Sometimes I get envious that my NT boyfriend is able to go hang out with his friends for several days straight when I feel burnt out after an hour or two. If I have more than 3 other people at my lunch table, I can feel myself get anxious. I still haven’t figured this out, but I thinking it’s because I worry about being completely ignored or being seen as rude for ignoring them and doing work instead.
Thank you! I confess that on the days I had to eat lunch at the university, I usually ate alone. Once someone asked to sit with me and I totally panicked. It was the most uncomfortable lunch ever for both of us. After spending hours trying to focus in class, I really looked forward to twenty minutes to scroll through my favorite websites on my phone while I ate.
Public speaking is hard! Did you find the class helped?
Wonderful post. I admire how thoughtfully you research and organize your writing. Our whole family has profound issues with anxiety. I feel empowered reading your experiences.
Thank you! I really enjoy research, especially about all things autistic.
I really enjoyed your post. I am supposedly “neurotypical” but definitely quirky. A few years ago, I found out about Sensory Processing Disorder and sudden so many things made sense to me. I am very sensitive to loud noises and I’ve pretty much always been aware of that but this made me realise that my extreme phobia of barking dogs had nothing to do with the dog but the sound of its bark. This has been quite empowering and I have become somewhat desensitised to loud noises now. I can be a bit sensitive to touch as well.
What is interesting, particularly in the school setting, is when you get an under responsive kid next to a over-responsive one and they can drive each other nuts. One doesn’t like to be touched while the other can’t keep their hands to themselves.
Learning about SPD, which has a lot of similarities to ASD, really changed the way I think about a lot of my sensory processing issues, too. It’s good to know that things have a “legitimate source” isn’t it?
Excellent post! Great points about rational vs irrational anxiety and the very real physical costs of every social interaction.
Thank you! 🙂
Social Anxiety Disorder & Social Anxiety in Asperger’s/Autism look very similar, but I believe are very different. SAD is more of a learned behavior (though is not any less real) whereas, social anxiety in Asperger’s arises out of the difficulty in reading social cues, etc. It can be difficult to differentiate the two, however, I think they are separate and do not typically give both to a single client. Good article!
You summarized what I was getting at very succinctly! 🙂 It’s interesting that you generally don’t diagnose SAD and ASD together. I’ve heard quite a few people with ASD say that they also have a SAD or GAD diagnosis, though perhaps they didn’t receive both concurrently.
When you describe SAD as a learned behavior, it makes more sense to me why I keep reading about CBT as a preferred approach to treating it. Thank you for raising that point.
This post! It explains a lot now. I thought I had social anxiety disorder but I definitely don’t have palpitations or trouble breathing. I really just have trouble reading cues and figuring out when to join in on a conversation without making it awkward, even though I do try. That and the cocktail effect doesn’t quite work out for me. I will hear (but not always process) what everyone is saying and all the different sounds, and it becomes information and sensory overload, to the point where I can shut down. Thank you for this post; I can now start to identify what I need to do to be comfortable in a party or group setting.
Whoops…totally meant cocktail party effect there
I think when I told the psychologist that I have a lot of social anxiety, we were working from different definitions of what anxiety means. To me it’s like a low grade nervousness and being self-conscious about the awkwardness that you described. When I read the definition of SAD, I was surprised to read about all of the intense physical symptoms, which I don’t usually experience.
If you’re looking for tips about things like cocktail party conversation, Emily Post’s Etiquette book has a lot of helpful stuff. You can probably find a copy at your local library. I learned a lot of social rules from it.
Hi and thank you, I love your wonderful blogs. I just had to reply to this one, as I bought a copy of Emily Post when I was about 12 to learn some “rules” to help with my social anxieties/phobia (am now 48 and having an assessment this week and in my initial letter I mentioned having bought that book!). Thankfully I haven’t had to endure all of the situations she describes haha.
She does cover everything, doesn’t she? I was amazed by the variety of possible social situations one could possibly find oneself in.
Best of luck with your assessment. I hope it goes well. 🙂
Thank you for this, a wonderful insight and reflects so well what I see in my son. He actually shakes too after expending too much energy or the effort required for socially and sensory demanding situations. We help him with a protein and hypolgyceamic diet as well as allowing him to control when he has had enough, and to identify his shut down signs. He too expresses frustration when his body starts to misfire and although he loves being with people sometimes his body doesn’t ):
I’m so glad you found something you could relate to here. It’s great that you recognize that your son has physical limits, even when he might be enjoying an activity. I think some people find that hard to understand. It’s great that you’re taking proactive steps to help him identify and cope with his limits. 🙂
This is one of the best accounts of anxiety and autism that I have ever read. Thank you so much for this
Thank you! 🙂
You are so good at explaining how I think, you speak for me. Thank you for sharing your knowledge so that I and others may better understand.
Thank you. I’m always honored when someone feels that my words could speak for them as well. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
Thanks for helping me understand my Aspie daughter a bit better. I will keep reading your musings which I hope will help to decrease my feelings of frustration.
I’m glad you’ve found it helpful. 🙂
I’ve just come back to re-read this post because I’ve been having real issues with anxiety, mainly social, over the past few weeks. I don’t know if it’s just a natural consequence of being at university and, for want of a better phrase, “getting out more” or if there’s some sort of underlying cause going on behind the scenes; I’ve been concerned that I’m developing anxiety issues “outside of” my autism (if that makes sense). This post resonates so much with these recent experiences, and I’m so glad I’m not alone.
I think I get what you mean about having anxiety out of your autism. Perhaps your situation right now is more demanding than your ability to cope with it or navigate it the way you’d like? My resilience to anxiety can fluctuate depending on what kind of demands I’m feeling in other areas of my life.
Whatever the cause, I hope things start to ease up for you soon. You’re definitely not alone.
Well-written and interesting post!
I completely agree that anxiety of bullying is not irrational at all, and that one has to make certain precautions.
However, there are some of the points I seem to find illogical or inconsistent with what I’ve read about social anxiety (psychology research is one of my special interests) and experienced myself. (I am twenties-something woman who’s waiting for a neuropsychologist’s appointment for an Asperger’s evaluation as I strongly suspect that I am on the spectrum, and have experienced a lot of bullying and social anxiety, and am currently struggling with various mental disordes, such as possibly bipolar 2 and social anxiety to a certain degree, as well as a lot of sensory issues and generally findng people who don’t want to talk about my interests (psychology, mainly) to be rather boring.)
I’ll try to be really brief in making my point (for once):
Social anxiety is, as far as I know, mainly about being nervous about what other people think about you: “Social anxiety is a discomfort or a fear when a person is in social interactions that involve a concern about being judged or evaluated by others.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_anxiety)
So, you’re then afraid because you’re feeling constantly judged, or like others are giving you the ugly eye, and being convinced that they dislike you and/or your appearance. That’s why one wants to avoid social situations and finds them uncomfortable, because one has very little self-esteem (for instance due to previous bullying) and projects those fears. And when (!) the reality of the situation is that people actually like you or have nothing against you, it’s irrational.
Opposed to this is, say, fear of bullying. This is a real fear of a real danger (of being in psychological or physical pain). Therefore, I would not at all classify this as social anxiety (or disordered anxiety at all, for that matter).
Because social anxiety is definition implies that there is nothing in the situation that poses a real danger, then, and by having irrational thoughts of what other people think of you, and interpreting their every facial expression as rejectful, it’s very different from what you’ve described in your post.
The reasons to avoid the things you’ve mentioned in the posts, are, as said, because they bring very real pain and discomfort, and pose a threat to our well-being. So avoiding this is not anxiety. At best, it’s going out of ones comfort zone — and why should we if it’s not worth the trouble to for instance socialize, when we find it boring?
So, basically, I guess if you’re asking yourself if you have social anxiety, it could be helpful to analyze how you feel around others, if you feel constantly scrutinized (as a result from bullying, for instance) when people aren’t in fact scrutinizing you. If so, these thoughts could cause unnecessary suffering, because they’re simply not true, and could cause you to avoid social situations for fear of others not liking you. If that is truly the case, then I guess one could try cognitive behavioural therapy as an approach to rationalize your misinterpretation of other people’s behaviour. You could also try to work on improving your self esteem.
(I’m sorry about the ranty nature of this comment. English is not my native tongue, and I’m a bit off my game today, but I hope I managed to communicate my main points, and what I’ve managed to illustrate the main differences between social anxiety and plain healthy precautions. (And so much for being brief, eh…?))
I think we’re both saying the same thing in slightly different ways. My social anxiety is related to being concerned that people are scrutinizing me or in some way forming a negative opinion of how I present, but I don’t consider it disordered because it really does happen quite a lot. It’s not that I suspect they are and they actually aren’t, which is the definition of (as you point out) a social anxiety disorder. Being autistic and having atypical social skills/presentation causes people to mistake some things that I say or do for completely different and often much more negative things. When that happens over and over, it leads to anxiety in similar situations, for very real reasons.
The reason I extended the reach of this article to bullying is that often autistic children (and adults) will express anxiety at situations like the playground or dating and be told that their anxiety is disordered and they simply need to try harder. Bullying isn’t always as clear cut and obvious as being beat up for lunch money. It can take the form of verbal humiliation, criticism, whispering campaigns, purposeful embarrassment, etc. which all fall under the social anxiety umbrella.
I agree that you’re correctly defining social anxiety disorder but that few people in practice subscribe to the narrow textbook definition and I tried to address the way that I’ve seen and heard people talk about social anxiety in relation to autistic individuals.
It’s also about which symptoms get categorised as social anxiety disorder. When you talk to a psychotherapist about the ways a very real and rational fear of being misunderstood in social interactions is causing you to withdraw and protect yourself from interacting, they will see it as social anxiety. Never mind that the root cause is not an irrational fear. They look at what follows from that fear, which is a lack of social interaction. And when that lack of social interaction poses a problem for the person, when it’s something they want to address and fix (and in some cases even when they don’t want to address and fix it, because it’s “just not healthy and normal” to NOT want social interaction), it gets labeled as an impairment/disorder.
Permission to take this article and hit my family doctor, who has been supportive concerning getting a diagnosis but when I then mentioned my problems of calling people on the phone she was all about how I just have to “take a leap there”, over the head with it?
(No, not seriously hitting her with it, don’t worry. I might print it out and give it to her, certain passages marked with a highlighter.)
This is so perfect. Thank you. I bow down to you and, if allowed, hug you as well.
While I don’t recommend hitting anyone with the article, I definitely support printing it out and aggressively highlighting it. 🙂
Thank you for the kind words and letting me know it helped.
I should print this out and pass it around every time somebody wants to drop by uninvited (possibly tape it to the door and not let them in until they’ve read it and passed the written test below it, I really hate uninvited guests) or want me to go on a long day trip, or any other tiring social function that’s at or beyond my limits. The sheer callousness towards social problems makes me wonder if they make kids with peanut allergies eat more PB&J sandwiches because “you just don’t have enough experience with it and you just think it’s bad for you”.
Reblogged this on rootless introspection.
Thank you thank you thank you thank you. You articulated perfectly the unease I have around the pointing to anxiety and/or depression as an illness in itself, rather than a symptom or by-product of something else. I feel relief! And a determination to resist anyone who tries to tell me my anxiety is unfounded and must be controlled better, i.e. that I’m failing by allowing the anxiety to exist in the first place.
Fukken saved. This is exactly how I feel about it.
I agree with your basic premise, but think it’s a little more complicated than that. For example, the sorts of social anxiety you mention is generally helpful in cutting through my executive dysfunction and getting me to prepare for and plan my social interactions, so you’re absolutely right about that. (Thanks for helping put it into words, by the way.)
But there’s another sort of social anxiety I experience, that *is* debilitating. When I hear that someone is annoyed or upset with me (even if it’s six months after the fact), then I go into an anxious tailspin. It’s after the fact; it can’t help. And if I’m obsessing about that previous encounter, I can’t face the current encounters of my daily life. I get less sleep, because I lie awake thinking about it; I get less done, because I have to plan out my activities based on “what will distract me from the anxieties so I can break the obsessive cycle and don’t get sucked into a week of hellish mental health.” I only have events like this every year or every other year, but it can be dire when it does happen. (I don’t want or need medication for my general anxiety, because as you say, it is a realistic and usually helpful approach to life for me, but I do sometimes wonder (usually in the middle of one of these episodes) if there’s some sort of emergency medication for just when I need it.)
I can really relate to this, I have had great trouble all my life dealing with groups, crowds and, occasionally, even just family. During social occasions I would be expected to join in with board games, have a glass of wine and listen to loud music. I hated it all, I felt so uncomfortable and just wanted to go read a book or lie down. But, no, I was being rude if I did that, no matter the state I was in…
I was bullied a lot in school, but thankfully that changed when I got to university-mostly. The idiots who liked to pick on the quiet kid went elsewhere, leaving me to work and actually relax into the environment. There’s always someone who thinks you make an easy target, though…
Now I’ve been out in the wider world for a couple of decades and, in all honesty, have and have not coped. I’ve gotten so worked up I’ve been left shaking like a leaf, so angry I’ve ended up full-out shouting at people and have had good and bad jobs and working environments. I stuck it out at a corner shop for five years, but it came to the point I was in such a state that I either had to get out or, quite possibly, have a Nervous Breakdown. Thankfully, the National Autistic Society was able to help me with that.
Learning I was on the Autistic Spectrum in my late 20’s helped me make a lot of sense about why I seemed different to most people. But it also presented a new set of “problems”-I was suited for some environments and not others, no matter my skill set and knowledge.
It has to be said that the Coronavirus Lockdown as good as put a gun to my head in terms of pressure I was under. I’m on Universal credit looking for work, then I’m not, then I am again-but the Employment Agencies started chucking everything at me, no matter how suitable/unsuitable, since all they normally care about is getting you a job and so off their books. so it was either quit them all or fall into a nightmare.
I’ve found organisations such as Elite Supported Employment and Remploy better than most at being helpful. I just wish there was a particular Employment Agency that specified dealing with people on the Autistic Spectrum. I have a feeling they’d be a lot more buys than they might imagine…