As per the DSM-5, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is marked by an impairing fear or anxiety of social situations (i.e. social interactions, being observed, performing in public, etc.) in which an individual may be subject to criticism. One may fear that they’re being judged as, stupid, weak, boring, unlikable, etc. Physically, one may begin to blush, tremble, sweat, or stumble over his or her words. However, those who only experience such anxiety in occasional social situations would not meet the criteria for a diagnosis. This is where being “almost anxious” comes in to play.
In Dr. Marques’s book, Almost Anxious, she explains her concept as “a sense of anxiety that persistently reduces your quality of life.” The biggest problem is when the “almost anxiety” leads to avoidance of the anxiety-inducing situations, which can be detrimental to one’s personal, professional and/or romantic life. Though almost anxiety may not be considered sufficiently debilitating for a diagnosis, it can still have damaging effects on one’s life. Examples of such range from refusing great opportunities in order to avoid public speaking to missing out on meeting the love-of-your-life because you can’t bring yourself to talk to him or her.
Almost anxious about social situations is where I’ve been for basically my entire life. My first memory of my (almost) social anxiety took place in my preschool classroom: I was sitting by myself, playing with a toy shoe in attempts to learn to tie a bow, when these two girls walked up to me. When they asked if they could play with me, terrified, I looked up from my shoe to see these two girls that seemed to tower over me (we were all the same height). I dropped the shoe and fled the scene like I had seen a ghost. I didn’t learn how to tie a bow until I was nine.
When I got a bit older, my social anxiety occurred primarily in academic situations, where I’ve successfully frightened myself into focusing on how everyone’s eyes are on me and will be judging my intelligence every time I speak. My grades from middle school until the beginning of college suffered due to my minimal participation in class, which I avoided like the plague. I’ve recently begun taking steps toward decreasing my anxiety by slowly exposing myself to stressful social situations (i.e. volunteering to present, working as a teacher, etc.). Now, I can more easily ask questions in class, but by no means is the anxiety gone.
During my first week of work under Dr. Marques, we were going over the Ignite presentations that each intern would present throughout the summer. When I asked for tips on how to prepare due to my dislike of public speaking, Dr. Marques checked the schedule and realized I was the last to go. “That won’t do,” she said, explaining that avoiding the anxiety only serves to perpetuate it. Instead, I was to present the following day on a topic I was familiar with. Of course I was immediately anxious with anticipation, but the anxiety dissipated somewhat when I realized that Dr. Marques is a trained professional in dealing with anxiety, making this the safest situation for me.
The following day, I presented reading directly from the note cards, my hands shaking so much I could hardly read what I had written. I repeatedly stumbled over my words and made numerous mistakes. When I finished, I was congratulated and told to repeat the presentation without note cards. I was no longer shaking and was able to present more fluidly. Dr. Marques asked me to rate my feelings of anxiety in both presentations, and had me present one last time. When it was done, I learned that this repetition is called looping, an essential part of “In Vivo Exposure Therapy” that ensures habituation to anxiety-producing situations. Dr. Marques concluded my exposure therapy with a reward, cake.
Looping forced me to stay in the same situation until my anxiety decreased, while also making sure the decrease was not simply a result of the relief of being done. I could feel the
differences between my physical reactions and mental capabilities when my anxiety peaked throughout the first presentation versus when I was relaxed in the third loop. Having never been so at ease presenting in front of others, I was amazed at the differences in my confidence, fluidity, and, the most comforting part, my physical reactions. Dr. Marques showed me the stark differences in the sensations of taking the “quick fix” by avoiding the anxiety as compared to approaching that dreaded situation. Rather than eliminating the anxiety, Dr. Marques has shown that it is best to capitalize on it, approaching the situation while using the anxiety to fuel your productivity. Though I certainly still have work to do with regards to my anxiety, I’m now half-anxiously, half-excitedly working towards being “comfortably uncomfortable.”