Social Anxiety Disorder
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), or social phobia as “an anxiety disorder that is characterized by persistent and exaggerated fear of social situations in which embarrassment or a negative judgment by others may occur. Significant distress will be experienced by the individual, often resulting in an avoidance of such situations, and impairment of normal social or occupational activities.”
SAD is not a disease or a mental illness. SAD is a completely normal emotional result of thinking and behaving in a fearful way. Correcting the behaviours that lead to feeling anxious in social situations is a hallmark of treatment.
Origins of Social Anxiety?
The evolutionary imperative of any species is to stay alive. In caveman days, humans had an increased chance of survival if they were part of a tribe. If a wild boar attacked a tribe member, there were numerous people to help in eliminating the threat. Being in a tribe also increased the chances of someone finding food. In freezing temperatures, huddling together for body heat was the only way to survive, particularly at night.
Essentially, being part of a tribe meant a greater chance of survival whilst being excluded meant an almost certain death. Therefore, being accepted by other members of the tribe was not only important, it was imperative for survival. Whilst many will claim that they do not care what other people think, the reality is that the need to fit in is hardwired into our DNA. In the nature versus nurture argument, it has been empirically shown that most fears are learned. However, certain fears such as the fear of death and a fear of loud noises are considered to be inborn, for example. Can we care less about what people think than what we currently do? Yes, whilst there is a strong evolutionary need to fit in, the way in which we perceive social situations can exaggerate the threat that a social situation realistically poses. Everyone worries what other people think to a certain extent, it’s normal. However, it becomes a problem when we worry too much about social situations, what others think, and when we allow it to interfere with our lives.
Fight or Flight Response
Fighting, fleeing, and freezing are all survival responses to a real threat and these responses have helped us humans to survive as a species for at least hundreds of thousands of years. What is important to know is that we can trigger these survival responses, not only when we are in real danger but when we simply perceive or imagine that we are in danger.
In the modern world, these fight or flight responses can simply be triggered just by imagining that somebody might judge us, or that we might stuff up a speech, or that we might get fired from our job, or that our partner might leave us, etc. When we worry about these things, it’s as though our brain and nervous system is responding to this in the same way it would as if we were being attacked by a wild animal. If we can really begin to understand that the anxiety and the anxiety symptoms we feel are a result of us imagining worst case scenarios and subsequently triggering off the fight or flight response frequently, then we can begin to learn how not to trigger it off frequently. So, if we can learn not to trigger off the fight or flight response so often, then reducing the anxiety and the anxiety symptoms we experience is not only possible but it is inevitable.
Common SAD Symptoms
- Frequent Urination
- Heart Palpitations
- Panic Attacks
Many of the same symptoms may be experienced with other anxiety disorders as well. For example, a person experiencing SAD may have panic attacks, and may or may not go on to develop Panic Disorder (PD). It is common to experience SAD alone but it is also common to experience multiple concurrent anxiety disorders.
SAD can be further complicated when the individual becomes worried that others will notice their anxiety symptoms, or their frequent trips to the bathroom, for example. But what happens when the person worries? They will inadvertently bring about what they are afraid of, more of the symptoms. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Did you ever see one of those old movies where the characters got stuck in quicksand? The harder they struggled, the quicker they sank. This is what people experiencing SAD often do, they struggle and try to get the distressing thoughts and feelings to go away in any way they can. I am sure you have figured out by now that this approach does not work. People experiencing social anxiety will often worry about being embarrassed or even humiliated in a social setting. Perhaps someone will notice them turning red in the face or that people will laugh at them because of some perceived inadequacy, they tell themselves. Because of the belief that their social anxiety is noticeable and something to be ashamed of their tendency will often be to hide this from others. This is where avoidance comes in.
As is the case for many anxiety disorders, the act of avoidance plays a crucial role in the maintenance of SAD. Some short-term relief will be experienced by the individual when avoiding a potentially anxiety provoking situation. However, this type of overt avoidance will actually make the problem worse over the long term. By avoiding the situation, the individual reinforces their belief that what they are avoiding is actually a source of danger. They also never give themselves the opportunity to prove to themselves that they can handle any social situation that comes along. The more you attempt to run, hide, or escape the bigger the problem gets and so too does the frequency and intensity of the symptoms. Avoidance may also come in the form of experiential avoidance. This might involve an individual taking drugs and alcohol in order to numb the feelings of social anxiety. Again, short term relief may be experienced but will ultimately prolong the person's suffering. Ultimately, the very actions the individual takes to protect themselves is actually what fuels their social anxiety further.
Unfortunately, most people do not seek treatment for SAD because they feel ashamed about it, and therefore feel the need to hide it. When individuals finally decide to get treatment, they have usually been struggling for at least 5-10 years. If you are dealing SAD, do not delay any longer in seeking therapy. Therapy with Anxiety Mentor Psychotherapy is a nonjudgmental service, and you will be treated with respect and discretion every step of the way. Seeking treatment sooner rather than later is advised but regardless how long you have been experiencing SAD, treatment remains effective.
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