For Kirstin Willis, the holidays used to be a tough time.
The senior at Tulane University suffered from debilitating shyness. The social whirl typical of Christmas and the New Year filled her not with cheer, but with dread.
With a party ahead, Willis would suffer symptoms of social anxiety.
“My voice gets shaky sometimes, and my hands tremble a little bit,” said Willis.
Her social anxiety prevented her from enjoying other activities throughout the year, like dancing, and even affected her academic life.
“It’s always been difficult for me to participate in class and give presentations,” she said.
Willis is not alone. According to Dr. Sean Ransom, the founder of The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans, social anxiety is believed to be the second most common psychological condition, following depression, and it seems to be highly prevalent in young adults.
“The person with social anxiety is often assuming that they know what other people are thinking, so they go into a situation assuming that other people are noticing their flaws,” Ransom said. “There’s this fear of being judged that can become debilitating — almost paralyzing — so it affects people’s relationships, their jobs, and their education. Some people have bypassed promotions because they didn’t want to be in a situation where they were giving presentations.”
For the very shy, social encounters are sometimes accompanied by a slew of physical symptoms: heart pounding that reverberates throughout the entire body, perspiring, flushed cheeks, dizziness, the inability to speak. Panic. Although running from social events seems like a reasonable response, avoidance only perpetuates the condition.
“That maintains the anxiety because the person never opens themselves up to the new experience to see that there really isn’t a danger there,” said Ransom, suggesting that shy individuals focus more on what they plan to do at a party, rather than on how they feel. “The feelings become less important and less burdensome.”
He also pointed out that there is a difference between introversion — a benign personality trait — and social anxiety. The introvert may choose to stay home and watch a movie, and feel perfectly comfortable with that decision, whereas a socially anxious person wants to attend a party but is apprehensive about interacting with others. The looming threat of a disastrous outcome (or what seems like one) is immense.
Ransom believes that cognitive behavioral therapy — an outcomes-driven therapy — can alleviate these worries. At CBT, the psychologist and his colleagues offer individual and group therapy sessions, which involve “role play” and practice in everyday social occurrences. The counselors do not scrutinize a client’s childhood in search of a hidden culprit that led to their current condition, or rely on medication.
“A lot of doctors will prescribe these anti-anxiety pills,” said Ransom. “But what happens is that the person never realizes that those symptoms actually aren’t dangerous.”
Willis participated in the 12-week CBT group sessions and developed coping strategies that have carried her through social functions, with ease. Before an event, she takes a few deep breaths and sets her goals for the evening — she only has to stay for an hour or two and speak with certain people. If the event becomes too difficult, she reminds herself that most people don’t notice her nervousness, and she takes a quiet moment to regain her composure.
“It’s amazing how anxiety can diminish the fun in situations,” said Willis, adding that she enjoys interacting with people. “I wouldn’t say that I overcame shyness in one particular time point. It’s been a constant effort to become more comfortable in social situations. Every new experience makes it better.”
Her newfound confidence has spilled over into other aspects of her life. She has conquered her fear of public speaking. And sometimes, she can be found in Tulane’s Reily Student Recreation Center, dancing to lively Latin rhythms, in front of an energized crowd.
She’s a Zumba instructor, after all.