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No one defines your life but you … You are always your best advocate and your worst enemy. You choose which one you want to be.”

LaShonda Thomas, marriage and family therapist with Lioness Counseling in Fort Worth

Life as a SAD Girl

Coping with Social Anxiety Disorder

By Erin Ratigan
Illustration by Amber Bailey

In a world where extroverts and socialites reign supreme, one woman will risk it all by doing the unimaginable — going to Walmart for some bread.

I like to imagine this is the point in my “Nature” special when the likes of David Attenborough would come in to narrate: “Here we see the lesser-spotted North American hermit gathering her snacks for the weekend. But if the self-checkout line is too busy, she will be forced to try again another day.”

Some days I feel like I’ve overcome my social anxiety disorder [SAD]. Maybe I’ve comfortably done all my shopping, made my cold calls and successfully bantered with a check-out guy. Other days I take on my gremlin form and, upon finding I’ve run out of bread, decide to go gluten-free for a day instead of going to the shop. But it’s not because I’m afraid to leave the house — rather, I’m afraid of possibly having a panic attack once I do.

That is how social anxiety differs from shyness or introversion. Introverts become drained in social situations and recharge through rest and solitude. With SAD, we feel unable to function at times, wanting to flee a situation despite knowing there’s no physical danger. This means we are likely to cancel plans — even though we really want to see our friends or go to that concert — because anxiety and fear are smothering us. The fear can manifest in different ways, like profound dread, elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing and nausea. I usually experience all of the above (with occasional panic attacks just to keep things spicy).

Courtney Guhl Huckabay, a licensed professional counselor for Terra Therapies in Fort Worth, says social anxiety becomes a disorder when it inhibits or challenges our daily lives. She says that can make it hard for someone to engage with family, friends or coworkers and frequently leads to their seeking solitary professions (like, well, writing). She says she’s seeing more patients experiencing anxiety since the pandemic began. “There’s a lot of discomfort that comes with being in social situations, and I’m seeing a lot of people who are having a hard time transitioning back into what we used to do,” she says.

Often, anxiety can feel like an ambush, appearing suddenly and triggering a fight, flight or freeze response. In those moments she suggests finding healthy ways of coping with one’s panic. “I tell a lot of clients, one of the easiest things you can do without any other resources is just paying attention to your breath,” she says.

Specifically, she recommends the seven-11 technique where one breathes in for seven seconds and out for 11.

“The idea is to focus on your outward breath being a lot longer because that’s telling your body that ‘I’m calm and I can relax,’” she says.

She also suggests having an exit strategy beforehand to help situations feel less intimidating.

Licensed professional counselor Christie Jones says bringing friends to social events could help mitigate some anxiety and allotting downtime so you have time to rest. She also suggests seeking counseling so a therapist can determine whether medication is needed.

While cognitive behavioral therapy is an important tool for identifying the source of one’s anxiety, LaShonda Thomas, a marriage and family therapist with Lioness Counseling in Fort Worth, says treatment for SAD also entails exposure therapy. “The best way to start working on those fears is being able to find yourself in those situations that you are fearful of, but on a very small scale,” she says.

LaShonda says pushing through that mild discomfort helps build confidence over time, and we should remember to be kind to ourselves in the process, adding, “No one defines your life but you … You are always your best advocate and your worst enemy. You choose which one you want to be.” 

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