What Does Social Anxiety Feel Like?

Published on 10/21/2020

I recently wrote an article about what depression feels like, and I was overwhelmed by the positive responses I received. It not only reminded people that they weren’t the only ones to feel this way but also helped them to phrase it for their loved ones.

Social anxiety is another disorder that is often misunderstood, also by those experiencing it. So many traits are actually symptoms of social anxiety, and the individual won’t attribute it and realise this. By understanding everything encompassed by social anxiety, you realise that you should treat these moments with kindness rather than contempt.

My social anxiety settled in later than my depression, but they manage to fuel one another effortlessly. It has become such a constant to me, that I often forget that other people don’t feel this way. That they can enter social situations and leave them without overthinking a single second of it. That they probably can’t remember every awful thing they’ve ever said, as they don’t dissect it to pieces.

Here is a glimpse into a mind riddled with social anxiety. I’ll try to keep it as generalised as possible, but there may be aspects that don’t apply to everyone or that have been missed.

A day with social anxiety

Today I have to give that presentation. I’ve been awake throughout the night, agonising over it. I have imagined every single way that it could go wrong and experienced the pain as if it has actually happened. I’ve considered everything possible in my outfit. Will the colour allow my sweat patches to show? Can you see my bra through the small gap between the buttons? Do I look overdressed or underdressed? Do I look boring or like I am trying too hard? I need to dress right, everyone will be staring at me, and I can’t risk looking bad.

I get out of bed, I’m exhausted, both from the lack of sleep and the barrage of thoughts. I’m rehearsing every word in my head. I feel too nauseous to eat, I keep drinking water to quench my dry throat, but then I fear that I’ll need to go to the toilet.

As I wait for the bus, I plan how I’ll stick out my hand to signal it. Will it look rude, as if I am expecting it to stop? How can I politely flag it down? Maybe I shouldn’t bother, I’m sure it will stop. But what if it doesn’t stop, then I’ll be late? Then I’ll walk in late, and everyone will be staring at me, everyone will be judging me. I can’t be late. I can’t be late. Checking my watch, I’m not late yet. But if the bus doesn’t arrive soon, then I’ll be late, then I’ll be walking in late. Do I apologise or just try not to draw attention to myself? The bus is officially one minute late. Why is it late? Okay, I’ll message someone that I might be late, just to be safe. The bus is two minutes late, what if it doesn’t come? What if the bus doesn’t come, I should check alternatives just to be safe. Wait, the bus is here, the bus is here. I’ll be two minutes later; I should check that everything else will be fine, what time will I arrive instead?

I’m there, and everyone is chatting, but no one is talking to me. Maybe I should try to talk to someone and make an effort. Maybe people find me rude for not talking; I could come across as cold and aloof. What should I say?

Hey, how’s it going?

That sounds lame, that sounds really cliche. Try again.

Hey, what’s up?

Hey, how are you?

Or I could try to bring up a topic right away, lead into a conversation. Then I could come across as interesting, and they wouldn’t realise how boring I am. I am so boring. I wish I were interesting. Like Maya over there, she’s laughing and making conversation. She looks so effortless, why can’t I be like that? Why can’t I be likeable?

“Are you okay?”

I look at the person asking me this question; they’re glancing at me with concern. I must look like a mess. Can they see my armpits sweating? I clearly don’t look alright if they are asking this. I need to try harder. I should make eye contact; they always say people like if you do that, I hate making eye contact, am I staring though?

“I’m awesome.”

Why did I say ‘awesome’? Why can’t I answer a question like a normal person? I always get things wrong.

It’s my turn to present. My mind has been buzzing so loudly that I barely heard them say my name. My throat feels blocked; I can feel sweat running down my back. I walk to the front, aware of each foot placement. Do I walk weirdly? Is everyone looking at me and thinking I walk oddly? I wish I didn’t have to do this. They said it was ‘informal’, but this doesn’t feel informal, everyone is staring at me. I face the crowd. People have all those suggestions for speaking in front of crowds, but my mind is blank. I stare at my cue cards and try to talk; my voice comes out hoarse. I paint a smile on my face and begin to speak with feigned enthusiasm; I don’t want them to judge me for being nervous. I want to come across like I don’t even care. Laugh, causal laugh. No, that laugh sounded awful. Someone is whispering at the back, what are they saying about me? I don’t blame them; I must look and sound ridiculous. Everything feels almost blurry; I can’t see specific faces, just their general shape.

I finally finish, out of breath, my back is soaked, but thankfully I wore dark colours as always. No one speaks, they’re all criticising me, I just know it. My cheeks are flushed. I want to run away. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. I feel my fingers tingling. Someone claps, others follow, but they don’t mean it. I rush back to my seat, smiling as someone praises me, but we both know that they’re lying. I need to be better; this is not good enough.

I finally get home. I’m meant to go to that party tonight. But it will be like every other time. I’ll feel completely alone and stressed out the whole night. Last time I drank too much as I felt so nervous. I got drunk, but it didn’t feel any better. I felt like I was watching myself do everything. I went to the bathroom and cried, then I came back out smiling. I often do that. The next morning I ached, going over all the stupid stuff I said and did. Sarah said I didn’t seem that drunk, she claimed no one noticed, but she was just lying to make me feel better. I embarrassed myself, I always do. So I text her that I can’t come tonight, I’m not feeling well. I spend ages crafting the message, nervously biting at the skin around my thumb. I send it, and fear runs through me.

I watch my phone and wait for her to read it. She is going to be mad at me. She’s going to hate me. I’m so flakey; I cancel way too often. Tonight she’ll be criticising me to everyone, talking about what an awful friend I am. I’m shaking now, nervously scratching at my hand. Maybe I should go, people can’t speak badly about me if I’m there. I could go and just barely drink, keep myself in check. But I should keep a drink in my hand; otherwise, I’ll be tempted to snack, I don’t want to eat in front of them, they’ll think I’m so greedy and fat.

Too late, my phone lights up with a reply.

No worries, feel better!

Such a short message, she is clearly so angry but can’t be bothered even to say it. She is saving it to tell everyone there. Or maybe she is secretly glad that I’m not coming? Perhaps they just invite me to be polite, no one actually wants me there. Why would they? They’re relieved they don’t have to be around me as I’m so dull. Tonight they’ll all raise a glass to my absence. I’ll just sit at home, refreshing my social media to watch them all have fun without me. Everyone has more fun without me. What is wrong without me?

The only thing wrong with you is social anxiety, and it is far more common than you think. It’s been estimated that as many as 7% of adults suffer from social anxiety, and so many don’t even realise it. Social anxiety can greatly impact someone’s quality of life and can act as almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, ostracising yourself from others due to the belief that they don’t like you. But that doesn’t have to be the case, as your social anxiety deserves to be acknowledged, accepted and addressed. With the correct help and support, you can take control of your anxiety.

Is your experience of social anxiety similar or different in certain ways? Let me know in the comments!



Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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