Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that the second biggest thing people are afraid of is death. The second. Turns out, the number one thing that people are afraid of is public speaking. His point was that people are more afraid to speak in public than they are of dying. While Seinfeld was using this as a joke, there is basis in reality. We all know the feeling of being nervous or uncomfortable, of struggling to make polite conversation or speak to a room full of people. Most of us can get through it. But for people suffering from social anxiety, it could be life altering, so uncomfortable that they avoid social situations, job interviews, or eating out because of the anxiety it produces for them.

Social anxiety is an intense, pervasive fear of being watched and judged by others. It can manifest in social anxiety, getting in the way of work, socializing, or school. Or it can appear as performance anxiety, causing physical symptoms of anxiety when playing sports, dancing, playing a musical instrument, or performing on stage.

Though people may think of someone with social anxiety as a person who avoids parties and stays at home, many different things could cause them to suffer. They could be fine speaking in public, but have difficulty talking to strangers. Or they could have no trouble going to parties but struggle with dating or eating in front of other people. And social anxiety is more than just being “shy.” In fact, not everyone who has social anxiety is even quiet. Nor is social anxiety uncommon—it affects up to seven percent of Americans.

To find out some of the different ways people are affected by social anxiety, we asked members of our community to share something they do because of their social anxiety, something that others might not realize.

Here’s what they had to say:

  1. Having social anxiety is not the same thing as being shy.
    • “Most people think I’m being rude when I’m not talkative in a group of people. In reality, I’m terrified because my mind constantly tells me I’ll say the wrong thing.” — Maegan B.
    • “Being quiet—I’d rather listen to a conversation than be in one. I feel like whatever comes out of my mouth may seem stupid.”—Juliana G.
    • “I will either shut down completely and not talk and people think I’m not sociable. Or if I try to convince myself to appear ‘normal,’ I ramble and talk fast. It’s a lose-lose situation.” –Bryanna B.
    • “Coming across as completely cold, blunt, and uptight—when that’s in fact actually a direct result of the panic and sheer effort taken just to engage with that person—ironically, in what’s intended to be in a ‘normal’ way.” –Cat S.
  1. In fact, you can seem outspoken and bold, and still suffer from crippling social anxiety.
    • “Talking fast, rambling and joking around even though really I’ve zoned out, and I’m pretty much not there…I run on autopilot and later when I’ve grounded again I go through and recollect what I’ve said or done…a bit like after being drunk!”  –Suze A.
    • “I actually find myself talking a lot…in my mind I’m telling myself, be quiet, you’re talking too much, no one cares, everyone is judging you. But I get so anxious when I’m out with friends, and there is an awkward silence, or no one is talking. So, I feel the need to talk more even though I’m dying of panic and anxiety inside. Sometimes after large events, it takes me days of no social interaction or staying in bed to recuperate.”—Jessica G.
    • “Being loud, playing the joker, laughter. Anything that will draw away from the fact that I’m extremely agitated and struggling.”—Vikki M.
  1. Social anxiety is unpredictable.
    • “I don’t think most people realize that when I’m out with friends, and I suddenly leave, it’s because of anxiety. There’s always a moment when it’s just too overwhelming, and I have to go home.” –Lucas Z.
    • “I cancel plans, often last minute, not because I’m rude or necessarily don’t want to go, but because I’m afraid of going out in public sometimes, afraid of what’s going to happen, who’s going to look at me, am I going to be embarrassed, etc. And afterwards, I feel bad for missing out.” –Jessica S.
  1. Preparing for social interactions can take a long time.
    • “Practicing and practicing what I’m going to say on the phone and writing it down on a piece of paper before calling so if my anxiety becomes too much, I can just read my script.” –Leah O.
    • “I always prefer to make plans at least one day ahead. Every morning I mentally prepare for the day. It helps soothe any anxiety and is a comfort to know what to expect. It is difficult to be spontaneous, but as long as a friend lets me know they’d like to do something on a certain day, I can anticipate that social interaction, yet be flexible about exactly what we do, where we go, or when.” –Jessica D.
    • “Taking a long time to reply to emails, texts, etc., especially group messages, because I’m terrified of spelling something wrong or saying something that is incorrect or could come across as rude or mean. I’ve had misunderstandings in the past with these types of communication, and it scares me. I feel like everyone hates me already, and when I write something silly, I feel like they hate me even more.” –Keira H.
  1. Social anxiety isn’t a choice, and it isn’t just “all in your head.”
    • “I start to sweat, ridiculously, no matter the temperature. The worst is the sweat that breaks out on my upper lip because there’s just no hiding that. Before every job interview, I have legitimately wondered if this time I should go through with trying an antiperspirant on my upper lip.”—Angela J.
    • “I get upset before I have to go deal with people. This usually happens at home and is basically the adrenaline aggravating me, but I get snippy and can’t answer questions in any detail until I have to drive and therefore get distracted.” –Myrlyn B.
    • “Constantly watching the body language of everyone to see if I’m offending them just by breathing.”—Jennifer L.
    • “I zone out sometimes when there are too many stimulants. I just kind of go somewhere else in my head and am physically just there, usually staring at something weird, like a garbage can.” –Elaine W.
    • “I’ll play with my hair, purse, or anything I’m holding to relieve my nervous energy. I won’t even notice it sometimes until I’m holding a torn-up napkin.” —Katie M.

Social anxiety is a treatable mental health condition. Please reach out to The Center for Mental Health to get help at any time. One of our caring professional counselors can help you cope with anxiety, depression or feelings of being overwhelmed. For appointments, call 970-252-3200. For more information, visit www.centermh.org.

Written by Jennifer Wheeler, MSW, LCSW – OP/JBBS Therapist for The Center for Mental Health – Telluride