Social Anxiety in the Digital Age
Social Media has made it possible for us to always be plugged in. Whether we are home alone or out with friends, we are constantly connected. We are glued to our phones in almost every social situation, trying to capture the most Instagram-worthy moments. It is ironic that in a time where we are so “socially active” online, our global social anxiety has seemingly increased. Personally, I have been through the highs and lows of social anxiety during the digital age. While I have never been formally diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) at the ripe age of twelve.
My very first anxiety trigger began with being afraid to present or speak in front of my peers. I’m not quite sure why this was the first thing to springboard my anxiety - even after years of therapy - but I can probably chalk it up to the fact that I’m an only child. Despite having many close friends growing up, I never had to be vulnerable in front of people my own age. Being that I was the youngest of my immediate and extended family, I was constantly surrounded by adults. I always thought that being an “old soul” was the explanation for my lack of comfortability around peers, but then I learned that perhaps it was a form of anxiety that was causing me distress. A form of anxiety that was more specific, rather than general. This was social anxiety.
Once I visited a psychologist regularly, I no longer felt social anxiety towards presenting. I was able to work through the fear, which allowed me to get back to being the social butterfly I once was. I attended group therapy on the side, which helped me become more comfortable around people my own age. It wasn’t until social media truly took off and the term “FOMO” or “Fear of Missing Out” was coined, that the same feelings began to reignite several years later.
Everything that I knew about my anxiety changed when I became a freshman in college. I used to attend Montclair State University, which as fate would have it, was not the school for me. Rest assured, I have no ill-will towards MSU, but I developed crippling anxiety soon after my first semester began on its campus. It was the worst anxiety I had ever experienced. The anxiety presented itself as unhealthy, nervous, depressive, all-consuming habits. I would go to class five days a week, then nap for hours when I would come “home” to my dorm. The Taurus in me thought that sleeping would solve my problems - that was surely not the case. During winter break, I decided to complete my second semester of freshman year online.
At this point, I knew what I had to do. I had to leave campus and finish my freshman year remotely. I had to find another institution to transfer into by my sophomore year (Enter, LIM College). Above all, I had to go back to therapy. I began to stay home five days a week, completely flipping my previous college lifestyle around. My bedroom became my classroom, which wasn’t so bad, seeing as I could go to the gym three times a week and eat healthy home-cooked meals every night. Even though I was probably the healthiest I had been in months, my social anxiety began to flare up again. I deleted all social media apps for a month. I couldn’t bear to see my friends having fun at fraternity parties or taking the commuter train into New York City for the day, while I was on my couch, watching Gossip Girl for the one-hundredth time.
One day, I cracked. I feverishly re-downloaded Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. It was as if all the progress that I had made - being back in therapy and developing healthy habits for my mind and body - had been completely erased. A part of me believed that if I could watch my friends have a “normal” life, I could have one again too. If I could go back to that time, I would tell myself that the word “normal” doesn’t have a universal meaning. We all have our own definitions of what is normal based on our triggers, lifestyles, and a plethora of other factors.
According to the National Social Anxiety Center, “Depending on your personal ‘triggers,’ some situations can be excruciating when you’re forced to interact face-to-face. You’re afraid you won’t come across well and others will think less of you. And if you’re typical of others with social anxiety, you imagine a simple slip-up having disastrous social or professional consequences”. After reading this quote, I realized how damaging social media had become for me. It mimicked the same feelings that I had when I had to stand in front of a classroom and present myself to my peers. The only difference was: this new form of presentation was behind a screen.
I thought that not being face-to-face with my peers would make me feel more comfortable about myself. I was sadly mistaken. I had to overcome my social anxiety by being social. I was often afraid that people were going to notice if I was having an anxiety attack, if I said something awkward, or if I was displaying nervous habits. Now, after countless therapy sessions and the right anxiety medication, I no longer suffer from social anxiety. I can go on social media without feeling the need to be everywhere that my peers are. I don’t feel guilty when I’m not at the bar when I would rather have a self-care night with my boyfriend.
I have learned through social media, that we are so much more than what we present ourselves to be online. Instagram, Snapchat, they are all highlight reels. Everyone wants to post the best version of themselves on their profiles. Someone could be going through the worst bout of depression of their lives, yet they will post a throwback bikini snap from a vacation they took last summer accompanied by a cheerful caption. I know this because that was me. It is impossible to ignore the ever-present hum of social media and FOMO. However, if you allow it to become background noise, it’s not so bad.
If you or someone you know is struggling with social anxiety, or any form of anxiety during this time, reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for support at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). This number is available Monday-Friday during the hours of 10 am - 6 pm EST. You are not alone.