Do you suffer from secret social anxiety?

Starting in my teens, I’d spent parties hiding in bathrooms or in kitchens, helping to make the drinks, anything other ...
Starting in my teens, I’d spent parties hiding in bathrooms or in kitchens, helping to make the drinks, anything other than facing up to my fear. Photo: Stocksy

A few weeks ago, I found myself walking into the sort of party that isn't a party at all, but an event, with paparazzi and girls checking guest lists as though it were the last judgment. It was the launch of a fancy product and I was attending under the (shaky) auspices of work; I'm a writer and I'm sometimes sent to report on new things.

And yet, before my evening had even begun, it suffered a fatal blow. The friend who was due to come to the party with me sent a text. A rash had sprouted across her face. She was going to hospital. "Don't panic," her last message said. "You'll be fine."

The paparazzi outside were an easy hurdle. After they'd gone wild for an underfed model, my entrance provided them with a welcome opportunity to clean their lenses.

It was inside the venue, beneath a constellation of Murano glass chandeliers, as the party swelled and roared and shrieked in cliques of three, four, five – the only "one" was apparently me – that I began to unravel.

Because isn't going to a party alone as exposing as forgetting to wear trousers? And who, in a room full of celebrities, would want to talk to me? Even more concerning: if they did, what would I say? Even in optimal circumstances, my small talk can produce awkward statements. Testing it out now would be suicidal.

I retreated to the edge of the room and took out my phone – my social life raft – which regrettably had no signal, so I wrote a long, fake text. Occasional furtive glances revealed that I knew a handful of people among the throng, but by then there was little chance of me getting to them. And I had a more pressing physical issue: my heart, which was beating at a speed that suggested I'd be joining my friend in the emergency department if I didn't leave.

So I did. Relief washed over me the moment I stepped through the exit. But I'd been at the party for less than an hour, and I'd spoken to just one person – the girl on the door, when I told her my name.

It was a familiar feeling, because while anyone might feel intimidated going to a celebrity party, my own social anxiety wasn't confined to such events. Starting in my teenage years, I'd spent parties hiding in bathrooms or in kitchens, helping to make the drinks, or doing anything other than facing up to my fear.

According to Dr Eric Goodman, a Californian psychologist, my behaviour that night was a standard set of reactions to social anxiety, the technical term for feeling shy.

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Goodman is the author of Social Courage: Coping and Thriving with the Reality of Social Anxiety, a book in which he lays out his thesis that social anxiety is an evolutionary response, harking back to man's early days.

"If you wandered off during a hunt and happened upon another tribe, it was often a kill-or-be-killed situation," he writes. "Fear of strangers would have been life-preserving."

My loss of confidence, my palpitating heart, my (weak) attempt to hide behind my phone were, Goodman reassures me, "all ways in which your body was trying to help you. It just misunderstood that the situation you were facing was safe."

His solution? Not to battle your social anxiety but to accept it. He likens it to a song that gets stuck in your head: "The more you focus on wanting it out, the louder it gets." Accepting that you feel this way allows your mental and physical responses to become nothing more than background information.

Social anxiety is a particular problem during the summer season of barbecues, garden parties and impromptu picnics – and it is also on the rise. According to Goodman, quoting statistics from researchers at the Applied Learning Centre in Montreal, a staggering 80 per cent of people feel socially anxious at some point during their life, 40 per cent suffer from it habitually, and for 13 per cent it is life-impairing.

At its worst, social anxiety imprisons sufferers inside their houses, reduces their friendship circles and lowers the chances of them forming romantic relationships. Women are as likely as men to develop it, but in men it often presents as irritability and anger, whereas women react through avoidance, staying at home or by losing their voice in front of strangers.

For women aged between 30 and 60, social anxiety manifests itself in a particular way. Ellen Hendriksen, a psychologist and host of The Savvy Psychologist podcast, explains: "Women in this age range put a lot of pressure on themselves to be attractive, popular and influential. They have to balance the inevitable compromises of a full life, which is often when they come to believe they are falling short. And they fear this 'inadequacy' will be exposed in public."

As a result, Hendriksen explains, they stop going to social events altogether, using family and work commitments as excuses. Some build themselves a perfect shop window, a character front, and hide behind it.

So what's driving today's pandemic of social anxiety? Technology is part of the problem. Not only does it enable our lives to run at often unfeasible speed, social media propagates the fiction that everyone else's life is better than our own and leads to less face-to-face interaction. Socialising is like any skill, says Hendriksen. "When you're out of practice, it becomes harder."

For me, one of the things that helped tremendously was when, in my mid-20s, I discovered how fashion could be armour. I also married young, so it was rare that I found myself at a party without my shield, and my husband has never known a whisper of social self-doubt. But this, says Goodman, is neither coping nor thriving, it's employing "safety behaviours". In his book, he likens socialising to working out, encouraging his readers to "build up your anxiety tolerance muscles".

He sets his readers the task of entering a mildly to moderately uncomfortable social situation to "practise" accepting shy thoughts as brain noise, and to notice any feelings of discomfort. But instead of labelling them as bad and resisting them, you should tell yourself that you are doing your social exercise for the day.

Tonight I'm going to a party. A big one with a red carpet. And although I'm pregnant and I can't wear any of my usual clothes, I'm not going to retreat to a cafe to read a novel and wait until my husband can join me for the last 30 minutes. I am going to leave my phone in my jacket pocket and check it into the cloakroom. Who knows, I might even talk to someone. And whatever happens, I've promised Dr Goodman, I will not leave until the very end.

Find social courage in three steps

1. Enter a situation that triggers your social anxiety. Notice how you feel, and listen to the accompanying questions of selfdoubt: What is everyone thinking about me here? Do I belong? Will anyone want to talk to me? But instead of labelling them as something that needs fixing, let them remain. Be willing to temporarily accept and embrace that uncertainty and label it as a desirable workout goal.

2. When you are aware that you're experiencing a high level of social discomfort, try a mindful body scan. Run your mind over your body from your toes up. Notice how much resistance to anxiety you are experiencing by tightening, fidgeting, tensing and – when you come to your thorax – holding your breath. Then slowly let this energy go.

3. Don't be afraid of rejection – it happens to everybody. People are complex beings. Rejection is as much a part of human interaction as forming friendships. Anxiety sufferers tend to catastrophise rejection, fearing that if they start a conversation with a person they don't know, they will receive an abusive response. But this is not logical. Instead, learn to accept rejection as something undesirable but not unbearable.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale December 16.