Social anxiety disorder is a misunderstood mental illness that affects 15 million Americans. Those who live with the condition may feel an extreme fear of being judged by others ― this can make them overly anxious about speaking in public or attending events.
People with social anxiety may also have associated disorders such as depression or general anxiety. Social anxiety can be mistaken for extreme shyness or introversion, and about one-third of those with social anxiety are thought to go undiagnosed for 10 years or more.
The disorder can make participation in ordinary events feel like insurmountable tasks. Attending a class or going to a party might lead to feeling nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath.
To get a better understanding of how people with the disorder cope at social gatherings, HuffPost asked readers who have experienced social anxiety to share their experiences.
The disorder affects everyone differently, but we found similarities in the responses. Several people said they stress about the event beforehand; others said casual conversation was overwhelming or difficult. And a few people said they're afraid to disappoint or insult their friends by leaving early or not attending.
Here are some of the responses we got:
I'm not rude!
"Would it look bad if I excused myself this early? I just wanna go home and relax. This is draining, too much to handle." ―Lisi Xiao via Facebook
"Making small talk at parties is like torture to me ... I know people probably think I am not very friendly, and it's not that I dislike them. I just can't do small talk." ―Doris Altman Shibe via Facebook
"Have I been here long enough to make my excuses and leave without seeming rude?" ―Kate Egglestone via Facebook
"I generally don't enjoy myself at any large social gathering, but sometimes I will force myself to attend for those I love. What do I wish other partygoers knew? That my discomfort or desire to leave or not attend has nothing to do with them or how much I love them. I just prefer socializing one on one or with only several people." ―Vicki Kosey via Facebook
I don't know what to say!
"To me, going to a party makes me feel so overwhelmed. I can't think. I can't have a conversation outside of small talk. I feel pressured to say something, and then I overthink what to say, and I either end up saying nothing or the wrong thing. I get sweaty, my heart races, and I want to run." ―Amanda Lint via Facebook
"People already there and chatting, creating a blockade in a room is my nightmare. I simply don't go in. Never learned how to insert myself into a conversation." ―Nancy Grant via Facebook
"I tend to stumble over my words a lot when speaking to new people, no matter what we are talking about. I'll misunderstand what they said or reply with something that makes no sense. New person: 'How are you?' Me: 'Yeah, it's hot outside, huh?' New person: 🤔" ―Heather Rudow via Facebook
I'm afraid of being judged!
"Sometimes I really want to socialize, but I'm always scared to be boring. I always feel like they're judging me because I'm the weirdo stuck in the dark corner. (No, I'm not a spider.)" ―Laure Marrot via Facebook
"Smile, smile, smile. Mingle. Small talk (ugh). Don't be weird. Don't drink too much to cover the fact that no one is talking to you and that you're nervous. *Overwhelming exhaustion.*" ―Tania Walton via Facebook
"I feel like I'm constantly navigating a minefield, trying to respond appropriately to conversation, trying to avoid saying anything dumb, trying to convey things as clearly as they are in my head. I'd prefer to just observe, but it is weird to sit there and listen and watch without participating. Exhausting. And then there is the mental replay afterward, over and over, analyzing everything I said and the reactions they caused, subtle or otherwise, trying to dissect it to determine if I offended anyone or inadvertently embarrassed myself. Hell." ―Jordie Nichols via Facebook
These responses have been edited for length and clarity.