To all the people I vaguely know and brush past without smiling, nodding, or saying hello, I’m sorry. To all the people on the fourth floor of Bell Tower with whom I don’t study or chat in the common room, I’m sorry. To all the people I could sit with in Marketplace, rather than eating breakfast alone, I’m sorry.

But I wonder if you know how it feels to be me. I wonder if you walk into a room of new people and feel a paralytic wave of anxiety roll over your entire body so that speaking feels impossible. I wonder if you constantly feel socially deficient, even around your friends. I wonder if you feel ashamed that you can’t just be normal and surrounded by heaps of people like every other person at Duke seems to be. 

Social anxiety is no picnic. While I have come far from my childhood years of almost puking before birthday parties, I cannot effortlessly flit around like the social butterflies I see  around campus. Sometimes I plan out conversations in my head with the hope that they will go smoother if I already know what to say in advance. I give myself quotas to fill for the number of times I need to participate in class. I force myself to learn the intricacies of small talk. In other words, I am coping. I manage well enough to seem quiet and a little awkward, but—usually—not socially incompetent. 

Despite this vast improvement, I cannot escape the discomfort that accompanies social interaction. My anxiety is not something I can control most of the time, nor does it spring forth based on specific reasons. In the hellish years that comprised middle school, I learned that my behavior was alienating and odd—something that made me an unworthy lunch companion or project partner. It is disconcerting to learn that some part of you, one that is beyond your control, makes you unacceptable to the people around you. At Duke, I worry that the way I act makes it appear as if I dislike people. I also worry that my social anxiety causes me to miss out on experiences or meeting new people. 

The defining characteristic of Social Anxiety Disorder is an intense fear surrounding being judged in social situations. People with social anxiety can show physical signs of anxiety, like blushing, shaking, sweating, elevated heart rate, and panic attacks. Most sufferers avoid social interactions that cause them anxiety and view unavoidable situations with unease. Examples of situations that cause social anxiety include parties, school or work, public speaking, dating, starting conversations, and making eye contact. While an overarching fear of judgement categorizes social anxiety, the fear of offending others, being the center of attention, and appearing boring or awkward are specific fears suffered by many socially anxious people. Levels of social anxiety range from manageable but present discomfort to panic attacks during social interactions. 

Social anxiety is not being shy. It is not being reserved or quiet or introverted. People can be extroverted and have social anxiety. Social anxiety is a serious mental health problem that requires treatment with therapy and sometimes medication. It cripples people’s ability to connect with others, perform basic tasks at school or work, and lead normal lives. 

Duke is a pretty overwhelming place for anyone with anxiety of any kind. You are constantly surrounded by “perfect” people. Everyone appears to have it together all the time—well-above average intelligence, the general impression of success, and a plethora of friends. As social anxiety affects 15 million adults across the United States (6.8% of the American population), statistically, out of Duke’s undergraduate population of 6,609, around 449 students may suffer from social anxiety. Duke has great resources to deal with mental health concerns, specifically CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). But what Duke lacks is a student population cognizant that not everyone is comfortable socializing “normally.” Included in the swarms of model students around campus are people who fear social inundation. 

While I can now work around my anxiety and lead a normal life, some people can’t. In any case, social anxiety is already hard enough without the added judgement placed on people who are awkward or “loners” or socially inept. It really pains me to hear people dismiss others because of their deviations from socially acceptable behavior. Some people, like me, have a very hard time talking to new people or working through the roiling anxiety that bubbles up every time an uncomfortable situation arises. It is also hard when people with whom I can interact comfortably see me in an anxiety-inducing experience, wondering why I’m not my usual self. We don’t hate you if we don’t say hi or start a conversation or jump at the chance to meet your new friends. 

The next time you belittle someone for being weird or awkward or alone, remember that you don’t know them or how they’re feeling. If I were treated with a bit more empathy and understanding when my social anxiety was at its worst, living with anxiety would be much easier. 

Camille Wilder is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.