At 16, Malika Neupane*, from Pietermaritzburg, moved to a new high school. Not wanting any attention on her, she decided to stand at the back of the hall during her first assembly. Suddenly, the principal called out her name and introduced her to the school. All bodies turned around to gaze at her. Terrified at the sight of everyone looking, she immediately fainted.
Now 22, Malika, still panics when introduced to new people. But, instead of fainting she starts to sweat, her body trembles and her face freezes to a point where she sometimes cannot speak. She opens her mouth and nothing comes out literally. You can say Malika is painfully shy but that is only half of the story.
Social anxiety is more than shyness
“Up until I was in grade two I had to be force-fed because I couldn’t eat around people,” she says. It took two more years for Malika and her parents to realise that something was wrong. At the age of 10, she was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), Africa’s largest mental health support and advocacy group, describes it as “the fear of interaction with others. Symptoms include heart palpitations, sweating, tensed muscles and inability to talk when placed in a social situation.”
“When I was younger, people would always call me ‘The Yes or No Girl’. I could only nod my head or shake my head to respond,” says Malika.
Hanlé Kirkcaldy, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pretoria says, “For a person who has SAD, it’s almost like a false alarm that occurs all the time. The person would anticipate a social situation in a fight or flight response when it might not even require one.” SAD tends to surface at, on average, the ages of 15 to 22. But most people have had it since childhood and often dismiss it as shyness.
Social media: the new trigger for young SAD sufferers
A study by the University of British Columbia found that SAD sufferers experience similar behavioural patterns when on social media as face-to-face situations. The results indicate that when sufferers engaged on social media, they feared that they would be criticised.
According to the 2014 report by Effective Measure, a digital traffic measurement agency, 51.2% of South African internet users are young people. Malika says social media is just as distressing for her as interacting with people physically. “Especially with Whatsapp, when I get a message I’ll reply only three hours later,” she says. “I have to really be in a space to chat with people.”
Social media is not all bad news
On the other hand, social media has greatly helped some SAD sufferers, like 22-year-old Natasha Ndlebe from Centurion. Offline, Natasha’s social skills are paralysed. She stutters, shakes and her hands swell up. “I feel like I’m out of my body, I lose control over what I intend to say,” she says. But on social media, it’s different for her. “I feel like I can communicate better on social media because I don’t have to face people.”
A 2012 study by Washington University called this “the social compensation hypothesis.” This is when SAD sufferers perceive social media as a place where they will not really experience anxiety, because the people online cannot see them and therefore cannot judge them based on their appearance or physical behaviour.
Social media is not the cure
While social media may expose SAD sufferers to interaction, it can only be seen as the first step. Kirkcaldy says a face-to-face interaction is important for them to truly overcome the social anxiety. They should be put into real-life situations where they have to greet a stranger, deliver a speech or do a presentation. And to fully progress, Kirkcaldy notes that it is important that SAD sufferers have the motivation and desire to change. “They must be prepared to put themselves out of their “comfort zones” to achieve results,” she says.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Image by Marcus Malumba, graphics by Sibulele Ndlazi
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