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Has your social circle diminished? Feel isolated but find making friends difficult?

Social anxiety is a problem that affects approximately one in eight Irish people, writes Margaret Walsh.

Margaret Walsh

MY NAME IS Maggie and I have social anxiety. Nine simple words that are difficult to say but even more difficult to live with.

Social anxiety is a problem that affects approximately one in eight Irish people. It can be defined as a fear of social situations and can cause the individual to suffer intense anxiety in a range of day to day social interactions.

It can happen in all kinds of situations, from talking on the phone to meeting new people or going to a job interview. It can present physical symptoms from sweating and butterflies to full blown panic attacks.

It can lead to low self-esteem, loneliness and depression and can prevent people having a social life, getting a job and making the most basic of interactions with other people. It can stop you from living.

I’ve had social anxiety for most of my adult life. As a naturally shy person who clung onto my childhood friends like life rafts it was easy to ignore the issue. As I got older and I began to drift away from those friends it was obvious it was becoming a serious problem.

Slowly my social circle diminished. I found it hard to make friends in college or in work, I would avoid meeting people for lunch and cry off nights out and I didn’t keep in touch with people when I moved on. I avoided any event where I might have to talk to people I didn’t know. I avoided putting myself forward in work for anything that might involve public speaking to the detriment of my career.

‘It took 10 minutes of deep breathing just to get in the door’

When I told family and acquaintances how isolated I was feeling they told me there was nothing to worry about. They said I should just join a night class or a book club, take up a new hobby and I’d make no end of friends, but when you are afraid of people those interactions that so many others take for granted seem impossible. They might as well have told me to climb Mount Everest. In the end it was easier to do nothing.

Earlier this year while searching for a way to meet new people I found a group called Step Out Ireland. They arrange social interaction groups for people that suffer from social anxiety. The first meeting took place in a coffee shop in town one Sunday afternoon, an innocuous enough get together for most people, but one that I had been looking forward to and dreading in equal measure for weeks.

It took me ten minutes of deep breathing just to get the courage to walk in the door. When I arrived I was welcomed by Francis, Step Out’s founder and I was introduced to the other group members. I hardly spoke at all that first day but it was okay. Everyone got it, everyone understood.

No one judged me or thought I was rude or weird. I could be myself. I went home that day finally feeling like I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. It took a few more meetings for the anxiety to start to disappear and it’s never fully gone but it’s getting easier.

Social anxiety is a complex problem and an organisation like Step Out Ireland is not a cure, but what it can do is provide sufferers with a safe space to be themselves with others who are experiencing the same thing. It’s a group where they can meet new people, build confidence and feel a sense of belonging.

It provides an outlet for a section of society that has largely been ignored and whose needs are not met by other mental health organisations. As well as meeting for social interaction groups we also arrange to go to the cinema, have nights out, go for meals, etc. There have been workshops arranged on how to deal with anxiety in everyday situations and talks on looking for employment (a large percentage of our members would say anxiety is a factor in finding work).

Members are from all walks of life, men and women from all over the world, aged from early 20s to mid 60s and all surprisingly ‘normal’. We talk, we laugh, we share stories and experiences and form friendships. Everyday interactions that can be near to impossible for a person with social anxiety.

The new year is a few weeks away. If anxiety is holding you back why not make it your year to step out of your shadow and step into life.

Step Out Ireland can be contacted in confidence through their website www.stepoutireland.com or at help@stepoutireland.com

Read: Forget your preconceptions – this is what social anxiety is really like>

Read: Short of breath? Have trouble sleeping and feel uneasy? You could have an anxiety disorder>

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About the author:

Margaret Walsh

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