The 'truth' about social anxiety and just how debilitating it is

by Dorian Minors

July 15, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


Anxiety is a normal healthy emotion. It’s thought to be a function of our survival instinct. When we become anxious, our brain gets a bit more active and certain types of anxiety can actually increase our performance in sport or test-like situations....

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Anxiety is a normal healthy emotion. It’s thought to be a function of our survival instinct. When we become anxious, our brain gets a bit more active and certain types of anxiety can actually increase our performance in sport or test-like situations. Why? Because anxiety helps us get ‘psyched up’ in response to some kind of threat. When the bushes rustle, our brains needed something to get it focused and figure out whether we’re about to fight some kind of jungle cat. Unfortunately, sometimes our brains get it wrong. For some reason, almost one in five of us (about 14% of adults and 3-5% of kids have an anxiety diagnosis every year) will turn this normal emotion into a disorder. This mini-series will show you how and why. Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) What: Also known as Social Phobia, SAD affects about 12% of the population at some point or other in their lives. SAD is not just shyness, it is a fear and aversion to any form of negative evaluation. It is the tendency to worry about and avoid potential social scrutiny that results in life-disruptive distress for that person. It might be a general anxiety about all social situations or it can be quite specific, relating only to public speaking for instance, or speaking with authority figures. But key to the understanding of this disorder is the fact that this social phobia is extraordinarily severe. How: When we enter any social situation or interaction, we have this background script running in our heads. It’s basically a little running monologue that’s reflecting on how well we are performing in the interaction. You know the voice ‘this is going well, ok lean back in the chair, show you’re relaxed’, then it might seem to disappear for a while. Soon it’ll pop back up with another instruction, observation or desire. But it’s always there, just paying attention to your social performance. Now, the key differences between those with SAD and those without is that not only do those with SAD pay much more attention to their background script, but their background script is actually negatively biased! No matter how well they are doing in the interaction, their script is often imagining that it’s going much worse. Now, our background script exists because we have some kind of expectation of what a social interaction should look like. This is obviously influenced by our socialisation and media. But there could very possibly be an evolved component to it. Because those with SAD have this negative bias, they have this huge discrepancy between their script (their perception of what they are doing) and their expectation of how they should be doing. This leads to them believing that they are being negatively evaluated by others (I’m doing so badly, they must be noticing and judging me). They will then engage in anxious behaviours (avoidance for instance) which usually has the effect of turning people away (people start displaying what psychologists call ‘subtle avoidance cues’). This negative bias turns into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why: As we’ll talk about a bit throughout this series on anxiety, humans seem to have an evolved predisposition to fear certain animals, sounds and situations. This is called ‘preparedness’. Basically, because some things are more deadly to us than others, we have evolved to react more quickly to them. In this case, preparedness comes into play because we seem to be prepared to fear angry, critical or rejecting people (because angry people might beat us up and rejection from a community could mean isolation and death). In some studies, psychologists have shown that we learn to fear angry faces much more quickly than other types and this fear diminishes much more slowly than others (when paired and then unpaired with something like an electric shock). Now when those with SAD view accepting and angry faces, they’ll remember more angry faces. When people without SAD look at the same faces, they’ll remember more accepting ones. Going back even further, A psychologist names Jerome Kagan found that some babies are born with behavioural inhibition - basically shyness. This has been pretty strongly linked to social phobia. So those with SAD might have been born with some kind of predisposition to develop anxiety, but in some cases it may just be one or more events (perhaps a panic attack or a particularly stressful speech) that will condition the person into paying more attention to that internal script and which might make it turn negative.

So how can we help?

Easy. Easy for us, I should say.
  1. It can be treated. Encourage them to see someone, there's no telling what good it could do for them!
  2. Always encourage the person to go find a clinician that's right for them. Don't be discouraged by bad psychologists and cold psychiatrists. You will find someone to help.
  3. You might even try online, at places like the Mindspot Clinic, for treatment online.
  4. Social anxiety is a lot to do with that shitty little voice in the back of the mind that is eating away at your confidence. Help those who might suffer here by actively fighting that. Compliment them, tell them how much you appreciate their company. Be genuine and you might just help.
You don't think you suffer from this? You might very well be wrong. Learn about rejection sensitivity and you might find you have more social anxiety than you think. Approach anxiety is also a sort of mild version of what someone with SAD experiences. Learn how to fight that and you might learn how to help out a mate. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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