What Can Apples Teach Us About Social Anxiety Disorder
As a species, humans tend to have a nasty habit. We love to compare and contrast. I suppose that’s not so horrid if one is in a grocery store shopping for, say, apples. When apple-shopping, I will, time and again, peruse all of my choices (and is it just me, or does it seem that there is a new variety of apple every week?), evaluating them for their qualities of relative firmness, sweetness, tartness, etc. Invariably, I choose Fujis. Never once have I seen an apple begin to panic or hide in shame because it wasn’t “good enough” for me.
And why would an apple do that? It’s an apple. It doesn’t even know that it’s being compared to and contrasted with other apples. Obviously, people are more complex than fruit in every way imaginable. People compare and contrast each other all the time, and unlike apples, they notice when they’re being judged.
People accept this comparing and contrasting in varying degrees. I marvel at my teenage daughter. She has never been caught up in how she is evaluated by others, not even when she was in middle school. If she were an apple in a grocery store, she would absolutely be the best apple she could be—for herself. She would not be at all bothered when someone examined her, judged her, and overlooked her. This seems very odd to me, but it’s really not. She can sit among others, aware of her own qualities, and remain as cool as the cucumbers a few bins way. I, on the other hand, would be fidgeting and fretting because I would be judged unworthy to be the apple of someone’s eye. Why?
Let’s return to the human habit of comparing and contrasting. I will point out that I did it above when I contrasted my daughter with myself. In order to succinctly compare each other, people use labels. Good, bad, or indifferent, labels are terminology that helps us make sense out of concepts.
The official manual of the American Psychological Association, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), makes use of categories and labels in order to define and describe disorders that people might experience. There are disorders known as anxiety disorders; among them is social anxiety disorder (SAD), formerly known as social phobia.
Social anxiety disorder is annoying and uncomfortable. I know this because I live with it. This is what it would be like for me if I were one of the above-mentioned apples (Incidentally, just thinking of this is triggering an anxiety response, which is silly because I’m not actually an apple. Yet as I type, my breathing has become shallow, my palms are sweaty, my body temperature feels like it has risen several degrees, and my thoughts are spinning around more than usual. The mere thought of being an apple among others is anxiety-provoking):
Here I am, just sitting here, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. But am I doing it right? Am I positioned right, or should I shift? I look crooked compared to the others. I’m sure they think I’m stupid for sitting like this. I should move. But we’re packed so tightly. What if I bump into one of the others and they think I’m a clod? And they tell everyone else that I’m a clod? What will I say then? How could I even look at them? Maybe I’ll just hold still. But that’s wrong, too. No wonder they all hate me. I can see that group over there. They’re talking and laughing. I wonder if they’re laughing at me. Do I have a huge bruise or something? I’m such a klutz, and now everyone else must know it, too. Should I say something? Should I try to strike up a conversation? I don’t want to look conceited, but I don’t know what to say. I thought of something, but now it’s gone because I can’t concentrate. Oh no. Here comes a shopper. What if I’m not good enough and don’t get picked? Or what I get picked along with others who hate me? I don’t want to be here anymore. But I want to want to be here. What is wrong with me?
And so the inner dialogue goes. Anxiety is about fear. In the social variety, it involves the fear of being judged negatively, of appearing incompetent, of looking foolish. As with so many human things, social anxiety is complex and exists on a spectrum, and someone can exist anywhere on said spectrum. The three major points on the social anxiety spectrum are
- Social anxiety disorder
- Avoidant personality disorder
Shyness isn’t an anxiety disorder. Someone who is shy usually feels nervous in social situations. He might want to join in a conversation or a group activity, but he might not know how. Or, he might not want to do so at all because it feels too uncomfortable. He might experience a degree of anxiety (the heightened sense of nervousness), but it doesn’t interfere with his functioning or cause a huge amount of discomfort. To be shy is to be uncomfortable in social situations, but it doesn’t interfere too much in one’s life.
When someone’s discomfort around other people moves past shyness up the spectrum, it can become a true anxiety disorder. To be diagnosed with SAD, someone’s fear of scrutiny and judgment must be intense enough to cause significant anxiety for at least six months. Anxiety can be experienced physically (headaches, stomach aches, chest pains, breathing difficulties, sweating, blushing, etc.) or emotionally/cognitively (worrying, racing thoughts, harsh self-criticism, subjective feelings of depression, embarrassment, etc.). Sometimes these symptoms escalate into anxiety attacks in a social setting, which usually further mortifies the person experiencing SAD. With SAD, a person can often continue to function, only avoiding social situations sometimes, but the person endures situations and encounters with extreme discomfort. People can become preoccupied with their fear and anxiety, going through the motions on the outside but remaining trapped in worry on the inside.
The fear of judgment and of doing something wrong or seeming “stupid” can become so intense that someone could slide further up the scale to be diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder. It’s very name tells us that this isn’t classified as an anxiety disorder but instead as a personality disorder. A personality disorder refers to an overall, rigid pattern of thought and behavior. These patterns are outside of what is considered “normal” by one’s cultural standards. Personality disorders can severely interfere with someone’s life and ability to function.
For someone with avoidant personality disorder, living in the world is extremely difficult. Like someone with social anxiety disorder, someone with avoidant personality disorder is afraid of the scrutiny and judgment of others. The traits of each of these disorders are similar, but avoidant personality disorder is like social anxiety disorder on steroids.
Brian Cunningham is a thirty-seven-year-old man living with extremely debilitating anxiety, social anxiety so extreme that he has been diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder. I don’t mind exposing his inner life here because, as real as he feels to me, he’s actually fictitious. He’s the main character of my latest novel, My Life in a Nutshell. I wrote it to help the world understand not just anxiety and APD but people who live with these disorders. Above, I shared what life would be like for me as a socially anxious apple (yeah, sorry about that). I’ll now share (hopefully better) what life is like for Brian, whose fear is so great he avoids people at all cost. Here, he is trying to practice social engagement by shopping at a grocery store on a Saturday afternoon rather than his usual Walmart at two in the morning.
The moment I step inside, I regret attempting this experiment. It looks drastically different from Walmart, and there’s a veritable throng of people here. I’m barely in the door when I hear a loud crash. I jump and spin in the direction of the noise so I can assess the danger, and I see that it’s just shopping carts. One shopper has completed his shopping and shoved his cart into a stack of carts in the holding area. Now another is fervently trying to extract a cart that is stuck to some others. Suddenly, the carts separate with a pop, and the ones that aren’t in the shopper’s hand slam loudly against nearby carts. I jump again even though I see it happen. Why are the carts here so loud? I need a cart, but there are too many people over in the area. There’s no way I’m going over there. I look for a basket, but I don’t see one. I’ll just hold onto my items. I don’t need that many. I tuck my canvas bags under one arm and hurry to find my items so I can leave.
As I move around the store, I find it difficult to locate the baking aisle. It’s in a different place than it is at Walmart, but that’s not the main reason. Everything has become very loud and very bright. Terrible music blares from the speakers overhead and hurts my ears. It’s not so loud, though, that I can’t hear my own breathing, rapid and shallow. Everything is so bright that each item radiates starbursts of blinding light. No matter how many times I blink, my vision won’t clear. I’m dizzy because the floor is slanting, and it’s hard to walk. Finally, I see the baking aisle. With great difficulty, I search for the items I need. Thankfully, I do have some necessary ingredients at home, so everything I need is found in this one aisle. I grow increasingly distressed as I pace up and down the aisle trying to find exactly what I need. After I’ve worn a trench into the floor, I finally have found everything and am able to head to the check-out aisles.
Social anxiety disorder and avoidant personality disorder tend to make things difficult for those who have them. The thought of being scrutinized can be uncomfortable at best and terrifying at worst. Brain Cunningham and I (and a whole lot of others) fear being dismissed as rotten apples. But as understanding increases, ideally empathy and acceptance will, too. And maybe, just maybe, when that happens, social anxiety can decrease.
I hope you enjoyed this amazing post from Tanya J Peterson. If you would like to connect with her please head over to her blog @ tanyajpeterson.com
Of course if you would like to find out more about Brian Cunningham and his battles in “My life in a nutshell” please check it out on Amazon HERE
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