By: Ileana Paules-Bronet
Trigger Warning: This piece discusses experiences with mental illness, specifically anxiety, which may be difficult for some readers.
Think about the word anxiety – what do you picture? Someone afraid to talk to others, too shy to speak up in public? When many people hear “anxiety,” they translate that to mean “social anxiety.” While social anxiety is a very prevalent form of anxiety, anxiety itself is is much broader. As people have begun attempting to destigmatize mental health issues, it has become clear to me that many individuals mistake general anxiety for social anxiety. As someone who suffers from anxiety that is actually eased by social interaction, I wanted to explore the definitions of different types of anxiety to amplify awareness.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “The term “anxiety disorder” includes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety, and specific phobias.”
Many people who struggle with anxiety are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD); “People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms.” GAD has triggers specific to each individual, and those triggers may change and evolve over time. GAD, as the name suggests, is much more general and has fewer defined triggers than social anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health explains, “People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others.”
During mental health awareness week, I came across dozens of articles claiming to relate to people with “anxiety.” I was ecstatic to see that writers and illustrators all over the internet were taking the time to expose truths about anxiety, but I was also disappointed that I was unable to relate to so much of the content. Article after article focused on insightful, beautifully-written content about SOCIAL anxiety, but made it sound like everyone with any form of anxiety experienced those exact feelings. So while I appreciated the intention of these articles, they often missed the mark for me. They also made me worry: anyone without anxiety experience who was trying to learn more would probably assume that anxiety is inherently a social problem. They would learn from these articles that social anxiety is the only form of anxiety.
I want to dispel that misconception. Below are some common claims about anxiety that actually refer to social anxiety, though the writers don’t specify.
Many people with general anxiety do not experience debilitating anxiety when it comes to their conversations with friends.
Fear of annoying people often does not affect people with general anxiety. While it definitely can afflict some people who have anxiety, it is much more specific to social anxiety.
For many people with anxiety, interacting with colleagues and friends is no different with anxiety than without. Anxiety does affect every part of life, but for some, being in social situations can actually ease anxiety.
When I first started experiencing severe anxiety a few years ago, the only comfort I found was in surrounding myself with other people. I spent hours on the phone with my parents, trying to make sure I had constant company. Talking to people kept my mind off the hell that was going on inside my brain – it forced me to focus on conversation and other people. My friends and family, even coworkers and acquaintances, were vital to my recovery. They were there for me when I couldn’t be there for myself and they alleviated my struggle by just allowing me to be present with them.
So for anyone who thinks that everyone with anxiety wants to hide from the outside world and isolate themselves, think again. Anxiety is much more than just social anxiety.
*In no way, shape, or form do I mean to minimize the struggle of having social anxiety. It is a very valid and difficult form of anxiety that I have fortunately never had to experience. Because I myself have never experienced social anxiety, however, I understand that it is probably much more complicated than I can comprehend. The point of this article was to shed light on the differences between social and general anxiety, not to diminish the validity of social anxiety. To learn more about social anxiety, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website.
Image via Jessica Rose Photography