I appear as the average YU student. I go to shiur, eat in the Caf, take classes, and study non stop. I am involved in clubs, and am on a few sports teams. However, I am different, because I suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder. This is a condition which involves intense fear of social situations, and the feeling that you are always being judged by others, even your friends.
What’s it like to suffer from social anxiety disorder? Imagine these scenarios. I wait online to pay for sushi in the Café. I take an extra second to pull out my café card, and suddenly I am gripped with intense anxiety. “Did people just see that?” I wonder. “Will they think I’m slow now? Stupid?” Things like this can cause tremendous fear in the mind of someone with social anxiety.
I walk into the Beit Midrash for morning seder. I am arguing with my chavruta over a difficult point in the Gemara, when suddenly I start to feel the anxiety coming on. “If I disagree with my chavruta, maybe he won’t like me,” I think. “Maybe he will think I’m stupid for disagreeing.” Instead of enjoying learning gemara like everyone else, I am just focused on how to survive the next 3 hours without falling apart.
Social Anxiety Disorder affect roughly about 5% of Americans per year. What makes Social Anxiety unique is that the sufferer knows the thoughts are irrational, but still can’t do anything about it. I know that people aren’t actually thinking this, but I am helpless to stop feeling that like I am on a job interview. You cannot outgrow it either. Someone who has Social Anxiety Disorder will have it every day of his life unless he undergoes treatment.
To understand how debilitating this is, all one has to do is look in the world of sports. Zach Greinke is one of the best pitchers in baseball now, but he hasn’t always been so good. He actually took off an entire season to deal with his social anxiety. He sought treatment, and the next season won the Cy Young award, and has been one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers since. He is still known to give the most awkward press conferences in sports, when he actually gives one. They are known for weird pauses, an inability for him to look reporters in the eye, and a tendency to run out of the room at any time.
Joey Votto is another example. He was always a role player with huge untapped potential. Coaches would always tell him that something was stopping him, something that they couldn’t put their finger on. After being diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder by a team doctor, he underwent treatment, and won baseball’s prestigious MVP award the next season. Stories like this illustrate the power Social Anxiety Disorder can have on someone’s life.
I am telling you all this because I want to bring to light one of the most unknown but common conditions that people suffer from. According to someone who works at the YU health center, social anxiety disorder is one of the most common things they deal with YU students. A prominent Rosh Yeshiva here also told me that the most common problems students talk to him about is suffering from social anxiety-like symptoms.
Why have most people never heard of it if it is so common? Simple. Social anxiety is usually characterized by an intense fear of someone thinking badly of them. Someone who suffers from this is unlikely to be telling all his friends what really going on between his ears. Thus, Social anxiety disorder remains a foreign concept to most people.
Many people you would never dream of suffer from this. Many people with Social Anxiety Disorder have developed a way to mask it from others, and can appear to be the most confident, relaxed people around, even while inside they are sweating and their heart feels like its jumping out of their chest. I can tell you firsthand that you would never guess what I am going through inside. Even when I have told friends, they usually don’t believe me. I cannot tell you how many times Stern girls will tell me that I seem so relaxed and confident, leaving me either laughing inside or thinking, “If only they knew.”
So how do I go through life after displaying how debilitating Social Anxiety can be? It’s hard. I tell myself that everything I’m afraid of isn’t true. I give myself pep talks before walking into the Beit Midrash. I try to ignore the anxiety and sit with people I know in the Café as opposed to eating in my room. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it varies day by day. I try to remember that we all have challenges, that no one goes through life without some kind of obstacle.
The hardest part is spiritual. I want to sit and learn in the Bet Midrash so badly. I want to go to every minyan. Its just so hard. I daven to God always, asking him to take this away, to make me meet the right therapist, to show me the light at the end of the tunnel. Like the posuk, Achat sholati b’veit hashem…shivti Bvet hashem kol yimei chayai- one thing I ask of God is to let me sit in the Beit Midrash all the days of my life. I know one day God will show me the silver lining, but for now I do my best to overcome this challenge.
All I can say about it is if you are a YU student going through what I am describing, you are not alone. Many more people have it then you can imagine. Be strong, chazak v’ amatz.