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Panic! At The Coffee Shop: My Social Anxiety and Basic Social Interactions

Edited by: Veronika Potylitsina

Think about your average day. You probably spend a lot of time interacting with people. Whether it’s asking questions to your prof about the lecture, meeting up with friends, getting some coffee, there is some level of social interaction involved in your day. You probably don’t even think about these interactions. They are simply part and parcel of the day and you just deal with it as it comes.

For people with social anxiety, however, these seemingly insignificant interactions can cause quite a bit of distress. From a young age, sweaty palms and racing hearts have been a significant aspect of these social situations for me. In light of World Mental Health day, I thought I would share some of my experiences as a social anxiety sufferer in these average situations.


Talking to a cashier/barista

Getting my morning coffee can result in heightened social anxiety and panic. Social anxiety causes one to extensively worry about how they are perceived by other people, so my behaviour reflects these fears. I rehearse my order a few times before standing in line, since I don’t want to be perceived as dumb or ignorant by the barista. I also count my change repeatedly, because I don’t want to be caught in the situation of stressfully digging through my wallet for more change. When ordering, I avoid eye contact, speak very quietly (which results in the barista asking me to speak up, increasing my panic out of fear I did or said something wrong), and get sweaty in my palms.


Meeting up with a friend

When calling or texting my friend to meet up, I get scared that I might be annoying them, and start fearing the potential rejection (even if this rejection might be due to their busy schedule, I end up thinking that it is because they don’t want to be around me). Due to this fear, I sometimes even avoid contacting people to meet up, and wait for them to contact me. When we do meet, I get antsy and fidgety, avoid eye-contact with them, repeatedly apologize for taking up their time, and nervously ramble to try and keep them engaged (resulting in some oversharing).


Speaking in the middle of a conversation with a group of people

Speaking in a conversation with more than one person can also induce a lot of stress, whether it’s a group project, a club exec meeting, or just a casual conversation with friends. When everyone is excited and trying to provide their input, I end up stressing about sounding smart enough and making sense. So I have an intense internal debate about if I should speak or not, end up blurting out something nonsensical or weird because I blanked or stumbled on my words out of panic, and then I proceed to shy away for the rest of the conversation while mentally beating myself up for being so socially inept. I think Dwight in the screencap above accurately demonstrates the weird crap that comes out of my mouth in that moment of panic. 


Talking to someone on the phone

People spend hours talking on the phone to their family and friends, customer service, etc. While I get along perfectly fine with my relatives and friends in person, I tend to become extremely nervous and antsy when I speak to them on the phone. Part of my social anxiety involves me constantly observing the other person’s facial expressions and tone to see if they have any adverse reactions to what I am saying. This, of course, is much more difficult on the phone. As a result, I tend to stumble over my words, get sweaty palms and a racing heart, and try my best to end the conversation as quickly as possible. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to them, I’m just not mentally prepared to have a conversation without gauging someone’s expressions and tone.


Dancing at a party

Social anxiety means you have a constant fear of being the centre of attention, especially for the wrong reasons. While most people dance at a party with their friends with relatively little worry as too how odd/ridiculous they might look to anyone else, I constantly think and panic about this. As a result, I shy away to the edge of the room, and have also gotten upset or cranky when my friends try to coerce me into joining them on the dance floor (it’s not their fault at all, I just feel highly uncomfortable and panicky).


Eating out

Eating out can be a part of many people’s daily lives, whether it be a formal meeting or just a fun lunch with friends. No matter the situation, eating out can be stressful for me, since I end up worrying excessively about my table manners and how much I eat. So I hold back and don’t eat too much and tend to be extra careful about my table manners and cleanliness (even if I’m just hanging out with friends).


Making eye contact while speaking

It’s a bit hard to describe, but I tend to get very uncomfortable making eye contact with people! Eye contact feels very intimate to me, and it sometimes feel like I’m letting the other person take a look at my deepest, darkest secrets. And so I avoid eye contact, and if it is a more formal situation like an interview, I just stare in between their eyes!


Meeting someone for the first time

While everyone gets a little nervous meeting someone for the first time, the concept of making a good first impression can cause a great deal of panic for me. So I usually remain very quiet and distant and let the other person introduce themselves to me. Just like when I meet up with an older friend, I tend to ramble or overshare in an effort to keep them interested in me. I also experience a racing heart, nervous smiling or laughing, and fidgety behaviour.


And these are some situations that may be insignificant to some people, but tend to cause me quite a bit of stress. Social anxiety doesn’t have to be something only shy, introverted people have; even the most extraverted person can have social anxiety (after all, mental illness in general can affect anyone, regardless of personality or situation). If you know someone who seems decidedly uncomfortable in any sort of social situation, take them to a more secluded location and talk to them about it. Maybe get to know what situations they might feel uncomfortable in andwhat you can do to help (experiences with social anxiety can differ by person). And most importantly, if they look extremely stressed or panicky, do NOT coerce them into something they do not want to do. 

If you or a person you know might be experiencing any serious mental health issues, definitely consider these resources:

  • Health and Wellness Centre (this link has more resources to access for those needing assistance at different stages in their mental health)
  • Good2Talk helpline: 1-866-925-5454
  • Campus Police 
  • Your College/Faculty Registrar

Image 1 / Image 2 / Image 3 (my own screencap) / Image 4 / Image 5 / Image 6 / Image 7 / Image 8 (my own screencap) / Image 9

Shruthi Vaidyanathan is a Mathematics and Statistics student at the University of Toronto. When she's not cramming her readings or doing her problem sets, she's binge-watching Netflix shows and looking for songs to listen to during her ridiculously long daily commutes. 
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