Zhang Zeze was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and takes medication. But on the outside, she is bubbly and easygoing. Talking to strangers or making business calls is not a big deal. “I feel quite at ease in one-on-one situations,” Zhang said.
Ah Zhuang also feels like he has two sides. The 38-year-old graphic designer enjoys anime and gaming, and is active in online forums. But offline, he shies away from gatherings, except the occasional get-together with a few close friends.
For him, the worst is being in a group of middle-aged men, even though he is not much younger. “When they talk, it’s all bragging, complacency and hypocrisy. Not a single sincere word comes out of their mouths,” Ah Zhuang told our reporter.
But when in a small group of close friends, Ah Zhuang banters, tells jokes and feels completely uninhibited.
“I hid this side of me ever since primary school and I never show it to strangers,” Ah Zhuang said. Even his career choice was influenced by his desire to avoid socializing, he said.
Tang Xue is an online influencer from Hangzhou who makes videos and writes articles about her experiences with SAD. She also created several online groups where young people who identify as socio-phobes can express their feelings and opinions about family, life and work.
“People write about the mental exhaustion they feel when they’re alone and how to bear loneliness over long periods of solitude. Some say these conversations make them feel much better. They’re healing for me too,” Tang said.
Online groups and communities offer safe spaces. On Douban, China’s leading media review website, the group “I have Severe SAD” has more than 40,000 members. Another Douban group “SAD Sufferers Comfort Zone” has over 60,000 members.
Zheng Dandan, professor of sociology at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Hubei Province, focuses on social anxiety disorder in China’s younger generations.
She observed that when facing a highly competitive workplace, many young people retreat into themselves as a defense mechanism. They voluntarily withdraw to avoid judgment: Some escape in gaming and online fiction, while others stay home all day instead of going out to socialize.
Zheng argues that a major reason behind self-diagnosed social anxiety is that the internet, particularly social media, has weakened traditional social relationships. Many identify as having social anxiety to excuse themselves from social obligations.
Zheng cited the changing views on marriage among Chinese youth. With previous generations in China, Zheng said that if a women was reluctant to get married and avoided socializing, she would not only face pressure from her family and society but also face difficulties in everyday life.
“Single women in the past might have trouble doing everyday chores like carrying coal or installing appliances. But now platforms and apps solve those problems. Technological advances have made life much easier for introverts,” Zheng said.
More and more people are identifying as introverts or sociophobes, which Zheng views positively as labels can be liberating.
“In the past, life would be difficult without social interaction. But things have changed completely. People are still interested in social interaction, they just prefer other ways. Some people may look shy in real life, but in online communities, they are very engaged and talkative,” Zheng told NewsChina.