Imagine what it’s like to have intense nervousness and self-consciousness every time you are put in a social situation. Imagine being paralyzed by your fear of being closely watched, judged or criticized by others. Imagine being constantly worried that you might be made to be the center of attention or spending hours re-playing your failures in your mind. Imagine dreading every single event or feeling uncertainty and hesitation at every moment. That’s Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia. It is the fourth most common mental illness, but it is often under-reported.
I recently had the pleasure of watching an excellent movie called In The Spotlight, a documentary film directed by Katie Cooper about “acceptance, recovery, and giving back with the goal of raising awareness about social anxiety.” The screening I attended was sponsored by two organizations. The Mood Disorders Association of Ontario offers free support and recovery programs to Ontario citizens with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, including drop-in peer support groups, family and youth clinical support, and online tools focused on wellness and recovery.
The second organization is the Arthur Sommer Rotenberg Chair in Suicide Studies, which is involved in clinical, research and outreach initiatives related to suicide. It is important to note that there is a huge overlap between social anxiety and suicide. 70% of people with the illness have thought about it or have attempted. Some of the reasons are due to isolation, sense of being a burden, belief that their pain is never going to end, and feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.
In The Spotlight was a mesmerizing, moving, empowering, emotional and simple film that connected the audience with the life of one woman, allowing us to relate to her on a deep level. The first-person focus of the film makes it a powerful one – rather than drawing on expertise of medical experts, it draws from the first-hand experience of the main protagonist. While the film is hardly controversial in its content, it is subversive because it brings attention to a cause that isn’t sexy or glamorous. There is no conflict between characters, but rather, the conflict is an internal one. The film is sensitive to her story and does not glorify it in any way.
Here is the official synopses of the film and the trailer below: At the peak of Earla’s social phobia she was housebound for six years. Today she is challenged with unstable medication, financially supporting herself, and appearing in various media outlets as a mental health advocate. Can her passion to help others outweigh her fear of people?
Spoiler Alert: The answer to this question is a resounding yes.
The film follows Earla Dunbar, a woman with social anxiety disorder. It shows her journey in finding the treatments and resources that allowed her to push past her fears and have an impact while living a meaningful life. In the Spotlight is compelling and illuminating because it puts a face to mental illness, showing a real-life example that illustrates lived experience in a way that reading about a list of symptoms could never do. Earla is also a remarkable character because, despite her illness or perhaps because of it, she is funny, kind, warm and generous. While social anxiety is a serious illness, the film still manages to include light-hearted moments that demonstrate the ability to thrive.
In the film, Earla sees a psychiatrist at the S.T.A.R.T Clinic for mood and anxiety disorders. She attributes trusting the doctor to saving her life, a powerful statement that demonstrates the need for people to speak up and seek medical treatment. A lot of people with social anxiety experience self-stigma and believe they deserve what is happening. This, combined with the fear of being judged, means that they often don’t get help or talk about their experiences, leading them to suffer silently.
Most importantly, Earla’s doctor provides her with tools to challenge her negative thoughts (such as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)), allowing Earla to finally leave her house and interact with others. Earla, while still feeling a bit fearful, bravely goes grocery shopping, sits in coffee shops and runs other errands. But her accomplishments grow even bigger than that.
One of her main achievements was starting Anxiety Recovery Toronto, a Toronto-based support group for people who suffer from social phobia. The group grew to over 100 members. It is meant to feel like a safe space where people can discuss their illness without judgement. Several times in the film, the irony was pointed out – a group for people with social anxiety where they have to interact with other people. But it was easier for group members to socialize with a like-minded individual – the constant fear of criticism was slightly abated because they felt less alone.
Another achievement for Earla was becoming an active and award-winning mental health advocate in the community, often sharing her story on radio and television. I don’t even know Earla but my heart swelled with pride when I saw her standing on stage, accepting an award. By the end of the movie, I felt like I had an intimate connection with Earla – that’s how deep the film draws you into her world.
This film is seriously inspirational because it gives me hope that I can accomplish my goals one day, despite my own mental illness (bipolar disorder). It shows why it is important to share stories. As someone said during the panel discussion following the screening, “If a person went through it and they are here today, then there is hope for me.” The film sparked an already growing in fire in me – that I am meant to make a difference like Earla.
After the screening, the panelists (including Earla) simulated a support group meeting. The audience called out their level of anxiety on a scale of 1-10. We also completed a thought record, which is a challenging task for anyone because it brings up negative core beliefs. This “game” showed the audience that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is hard work. I learned this at the screening – that this is something that people need to realize about self-care – sometimes it sucks. It’s not always easy or about feeling good – it’s about taking care of your needs and pushing yourself to do better. For anyone engaging in tough self-care, the panelists advised that they should be gentle with themselves and try not to beat themselves up or expect to be perfect.
Do you know someone with social anxiety? I left the screening with some tips on how to help someone with social anxiety and support them. These include:
- Telling them that it is not their fault and that they are not weak
- Help them overcome a fear, and when they do, tell them they did a great job, even if it is a simple task.
- Be patient and kind
- Don’t give up on people
- Carrying a seed of hope for somebody when they can’t themselves
- Engage in active listening – which can often be as simple as silence
Do you have social anxiety yourself? What is it like for you and how do you cope with it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.