Sucheta Pal is a fitness expert and Zumba global brand ambassador. But Pal was not always a fitness instructor. She used to be an IT engineer with stressful work hours, inconsistent sleeping patterns and unhealthy food habits.

A decade into this high-pressure corporate job, Pal suddenly found small issues at work were seeming big, she dreaded meetings and would break into a sweat while conducting small talk in the elevator with colleagues. Simple networking, which others could do easily, was insufferable for her, and meeting someone new was always a nightmare.

As these symptoms began to grow, she visited a psychologist in 2006 and was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD), a state which needed active management.

Pal found it difficult to have a conversation about it with her boss or colleagues, and there were stressful and embarrassing moments when she found herself running out of meeting rooms in panic. It took her a year to gather the courage to share her situation with some close colleagues, and although they did not comprehend it fully, she was never ridiculed. It made her feel a little more relaxed but when the attacks did not stop, it became difficult for her to function efficiently in that job. She eventually decided to change careers, but it was not easy without monetary support. She had to save up enough to sustain herself for a year, when she pursued dance and fitness professionally. It wasn’t easy—she had to do three part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Pal’s situation is not very unfamiliar to many who are part of a stressful corporate environment. “It is important for everyone to understand that SAD is a condition which is a result of feeling pressured. Don’t be judgmental and work to support those who suffer from it," she says.

Don’t confuse shyness with ‘SAD’

First, it is important to understand that social anxiety is fundamentally different from shyness, has specific symptoms, both physical as well as mental, and needs treatment. “Shyness is when a person feels hesitation in talking to people, but it is not as debilitating as social anxiety and does not usually infringe upon a person’s social interactions extensively. Whereas social anxiety that shows up as irrational fear of performing activities in the presence of other people or interacting with others, can be very enfeebling," says Devisha Batra, psychologist at IWill Therapy by ePsyClinic, a Gurugram-based online mental healthcare provider. Individuals with this type of anxiety fear their actions are viewed by others critically. They are often seen by others as being quiet, withdrawn and nervous. “Though they want to make friends, be included in groups and be in social interactions, having this anxiety prevents people from being able to do the things they want to do," says Batra.

It is important to remember that although people with social anxiety want to be friendly, open and sociable, they are held back by the fear of being wrong or being looked down by other people. “Common physical signs of anxiety include shallow breathing, sweating, hot flushes, a racing heart, tightness in the chest, feeling tense and shaky when in social situations," says Batra.

According to Harish Shetty, social psychiatrist at L H Hiranandani hospital, Mumbai, SAD can begin as early as at the age of 10, and can stay undetected due to lack of knowledge about it, or because it is often confused with shyness. “Often there is a genetic connect, but SAD can be brought on due to environmental or circumstantial situations too or be a result of trauma," says Shetty, adding that those who get bullied or teased extensively while growing up or are humiliated at work, are susceptible. “Stress, when chronic and continuous, can also push a person towards it and office stress is a common known aggravator," he adds .

How it becomes tougher

Individuals with social anxiety working in corporate sectors find it difficult to manage and deal with other people, thus their anxiety attacks are frequent. Their inability to maintain a conversation and network, and aversion to making presentations and attending meetings hinders their career growth path. And they often have trouble retaining jobs.

“That is why they often work better as artists, writers, researchers, bloggers, photographers. In fact, work-from-home options work well for them," says Batra. “I see at least three SAD cases a month and find that, often moving out of a job that a person does not enjoy and following a passion instead helps," adds Shetty.

That is what Pal did. She decided to opt for a career which would be more conducive to her mental state. She discovered Zumba and says it helps her to manage her social phobia easier as her passion for it guides her and keeps her insulated. “I still suffer from social anxiety but now thanks to therapy, I know how to manage the stress better and so I am in a better place," she says. “People underestimate the benefits of exercise in case of mental health. It has been a life saver in my case," she adds.

Three ways of getting through an interview

Challenge

If your brain tells you that someone looking at you is also judging you, you need to systematically challenge that assumption and thought. Write down the possible reasons for why a person is staring at you. Do this exercise for all your anxious thoughts and social situations that make you uncomfortable at your workplace, in meetings and in interviews.

Prepare

The fear of not being able to speak or answer at interviews is a common anxiety trait.

But instead of being scared of the event (interview) or avoiding it, you need to practise and prepare for it with a friend or family member who knows about your anxiety. This exercise can help reduce the fear of uncertainty.

Take criticism

A common problem faced by those with social anxiety is that they are very sensitive to criticism and tend to take it personally. Break this loop and get comfortable with seeking opinion about your work, and take the feedback as something that is supposed to help you improve.

—Devisha Batra, psychologist at IWill Therapy by ePsyClinic

Where to find help

Psychotherapy and medication are the major treatment plans for this disorder. Psychotherapy includes cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT); it helps change the way people think about themselves, their surroundings and other people. The therapy helps bring about a more realistic and accurate way of thinking about fearful situations, while challenging anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings.

In exposure therapy, the person is exposed to social situations that the person fears (it’s mostly enactment) to help them confront their irrational thoughts and anxiety in real time.

Anti-anxiety medications are prescribed to treat social anxiety disorder and these are administered in combination with therapeutic sessions.

—Devisha Batra and Harish Shetty

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