For Amy Vaughn, having social anxiety is like constant humiliation. She feels like people are always watching her, judging her and talking about her.
And she says the talking and judging is never good.
“Going to a Royals game would be a big anxiety for me,” Vaughn says.
Even going out to eat at a restaurant or going shopping can be a challenge for her. The anxiety and stress of dealing with people has even caused her to have a nervous breakdown and a heart attack.
It’s a condition she’s suffered from since childhood.
“My mom and dad noticed when I’d go to family functions, or any kind of functions that has large crowds of people, they would notice I’d stand off to the side or I would leave early,” Vaughn says.
For the better part of 15 years, she stayed in the shadows as much as she could, she added.
“You’re like a hermit,” Vaughn says.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). It affects 40 million adults 18 years old or older. That’s about 18 percent of the total population.
About 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, according to ADAA statistics. The typical age of onset is around 13 years old. Children who experience social anxiety are often described as having clinging behavior, tantrums and sometimes have problems communicating in social settings.
According to the definition of social anxiety disorder given by Dr. Shirley Taylor, Vaughn might be a textbook case. The Mosaic Life Care psychologist says the condition is typified by having the feeling of being different, fear of being put on the spot or embarrassed in some way and being judged and rejected.
“They’re really afraid of making a mistake, they’re really hard on themselves, they’re most comfortable at home and they have a hard time making friends or talking to other people,” Taylor says.
There are a few factors that may cause people to experience social anxiety, Taylor adds.
“Some people are just born that way; it’s an inherited trait for some people. A lot of times if someone has that degree of social fear you’ll find it in their family as well, mom or dad,” she said. “It’s a chemical imbalance for some people and for others it’s a result of having had a real bad experience where they were humiliated or made fun of and they just backed off.”
Other symptoms and risk factors, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, include:
Feeling highly anxious about being with other people and having a hard time talking to them.
Feeling very self-conscious in front of other people.
Worrying for days or weeks before an event where other people will be.
Having a hard time making and keeping friends.
Blushing, sweating or trembling around other people.
Evaluation often begins with a visit to a primary care physician. Counseling and medication can help, Taylor says.
“It’s fairly treatable. ... If you come to a mental health person we’re going to talk about it, we’re going to talk about when did this first happen, how does it interfere with your life,” Taylor says. “Sometimes by talking about it you can kind of tease out the elements and neutralize some of these fears.”
Vaughn sees a psychologist every month. She also takes anti-anxiety medication, which she says helps her be more sociable. She’s on a bowling team, and says she has good days and bad days.
“It affects you a lot because people don’t understand your problem,” Vaughn says. “You have to explain to them what it is.”