The Mechanism of Social Anxiety

November 28, 2023

The Mechanism of Social Anxiety

How is social anxiety created and sustained?

"There's a stimulating maxim among mental health practitioners: 'Focusing on depression will ruin your practice, specializing in anxiety disorders will make you wealthy.' This is because those with depression often struggle to continue treatment due to a lack of energy, while those with anxiety disorders, aspiring to understand and find solutions to their anxiety, tend to persist in seeking treatments. Fundamentally, anxiety arises from an insufficient understanding of the present and uncertainty about the future. Therefore, understanding one's own anxiety is important to those feeling anxious.

In this article, we will explore the mechanism of social anxiety. How is social anxiety created and sustained? In the following, we will discuss the seven key factors that contribute to the development and persistence of social anxiety. Understanding each component and applying it to one's situation can aid in figuring out why one feels anxious!

First, Self-Image

Many individuals possess a certain self-image. This can take the form of a statement such as “I am a competent person who attained a PhD” or it can be a specific image, such as a figure 'sitting quietly in a room'. We call this a 'self-image'. Researchers have found that people with social anxiety often retain a specific type of self-image. They primarily view themselves as insufficient, awkward, or unfit. Common examples include:

  • I look immature.
  • I'm boring.
  • I'm a bit odd and awkward.
  • Other people will think I am uncomfortable.
  • I have an image of me, nervous and shaking, when I stand before others.

These self-images create two sets of problems. The moment one possesses such images, interactions with others become more uncomfortable. The second problem is that one tends to accept information consistent with such images selectively, even if, in reality, one is not that boring or awkward. Thus, these self-images become 'self-fulfilling prophecies', leading an individual to become the kind of person they imagine themselves to be.

Second, Automatic Thoughts

Specific thoughts often unconsciously pop up in people's minds. It is not a matter of 'I am thinking'; rather, thoughts literally 'appear'. These reflexively occurring thoughts in specific situations are referred to as 'automatic thoughts'. Researchers have discovered that people suffering from social anxiety exhibit certain types of automatic thoughts. These can be categorized into four groups. People with social anxiety tend to have the following four types of thoughts in social situations:

  • Prediction
  • "People will think I look anxious."
  • "I'm going to be laughed at."
  • Worry
  • "What if people have no response when I speak?
  • "What if I can't control myself and become awkward?"
  • Judgment
  • "I'm messing something up."
  • "I look stupid right now."
  • Doubt
  • "I won't be able to handle this."
  • "What if people notice my anxiety?"

Automatic thoughts appear excessively in cases of social anxiety, and they are often inaccurate. For example, people may not realize that my voice is shaking, and even if they do, they may simply think 'maybe he's a bit nervous' and not think much of it.

Third, Beliefs

Digging deeper into the cognitive systems of those with social anxiety, these individuals often hold deep-rooted beliefs about themselves, others, and the world. For example:

  • "I am insufficient."
  • "I can't fit in with people."
  • "People are always critical and evaluative."
  • "In this world, weak people will be phased out."

People who have deeply rooted beliefs naturally think like the following:

  • "I am insufficient." → "What if people notice this?"
  • "I can't fit in with people." → "What would people think of me standing alone?"
  • "People are always critical and evaluative." → "I can't make a single mistake in my presentation."
  • "In this world, weak people will be phased out." → "If I make a mistake, I guess I will be phased out too."

And when people think like this, naturally, it becomes more difficult to stand in front of others and engage in interactions.

Fourth, Inward-directed Thinking

Direction of one's thoughts can be divided into two broad categories: outward or inward. Outward-directed thoughts mean our attention is focused on the actual reality. This encompasses what is happening around us, how people are reacting, what is visible in front of our eyes, and what scents are there. Conversely, inward-directed thoughts focus on our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. People with social anxiety often have inward-oriented thoughts, usually focusing on:

  • Momentary thoughts popping into mind (e.g., "I'm messing something up").
  • How people perceive me.
  • My physical reactions (e.g., shaking voice, burning face, stuttering speech, sweat rolling down the back).
  • How 'well' I'm doing.
  • My self-image.

However, such inward-directed thinking amplifies social anxiety in the following ways:

  • It prevents us from staying in the moment, leading to decreased performance and increased anxiety.
  • It completely ignores the parts we are doing well.
  • It exaggerates dangers (e.g., focusing on shaking voice makes one think they will 'ruin everything').
  • Focusing on such thoughts can actually make them come true (e.g., repeat 'I should not shake my voice', and it ends up shaking).

Fifth, Safety Behaviors

People with social anxiety avoid situations that may cause anxiety to alleviate their discomfort. These are called 'safety behaviors'. Common examples include:

  • Avoiding one-on-one meetings with people.
  • Not expressing my opinion to prevent appearing foolish.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Repeatedly rehearsing what I have to say.
  • Drinking alcohol to relax.
  • Repeatedly asking questions without expressing an opinion.

However, such safety behaviors exacerbate social anxiety in the following ways:

  • Deprives opportunity to learn truth: In many cases, when looked at one by one, my thoughts are often inaccurate. According to one study, when a person with social anxiety is 100% certain that 'I will look stupid', others believe it to be only 20-30% (thinking 'he seems nervous', 'he tends to shake during a presentation'). But safety behaviors utterly deprive the opportunity to learn these facts, reinforcing negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself.
  • Increases self-doubt: Safety behaviors direct our attention 'inward'. 'Phew, I'm less shaky when I avoid eye contact' and so on. But such inward-directed thoughts just heighten self-doubt, 'I will look awkward in front of others.'
  • Safety behaviors produce the actual feared result: Think about someone who constantly rehearses because they worry about talking to people. Now, it's time for real day-to-day conversation. Can the person communicate naturally? The answer is no. They will only end up speaking like a robot. As a result, people will really think, 'Why is that friend so awkward?' This is an example of safety behaviors creating a 'self-fulfilling behavior.'

Sixth, Anticipatory Anxiety

Feeling anxious and worried about things that have not yet happened is known as 'anticipatory anxiety'. People with social anxiety often show signs of anticipatory anxiety. 'What if I have to present in class today?', 'What do I do if I meet friends on the street and have to talk?', 'What do I do if I receive a call from a stranger at work?' This form of worry can sometimes be helpful in preparing for the future. However, the anticipatory anxiety shown in social anxiety has already lost this function. Anticipatory anxiety merely intensifies the negative self-image, automatic thoughts, belief, and inward-directed thinking by constantly reminding oneself of past deficiencies. Moreover, when feeling anticipatory anxiety, one often only thinks about the worst possible incidents, which also strengthens social anxiety.

Seventh, Constant Rumination

Let's imagine that a real social situation occurred. But it was not handled well. For instance, let's assume that one made quite a few mistakes in a presentation. How would people with social anxiety react to this? Would they think, 'Well, there's nothing to do about it... I'll do better next time'? The answer is no. People with social anxiety continually dwell on their shortcomings in social situations. This is called 'rumination.' Rumination seems as if it will solve the problem. It seems that if one thinks deeply enough, one can find an answer. However, the reality is different. Many studies support the notion that rumination does not solve any problems. It only reinforces and revisits negative thoughts and self-images.

If you apply these seven factors to your own situation, you should be able to understand why you are suffering from social anxiety. Understanding alone can lessen the anxiety. If this understanding solves many things, you might want to try handling it on your own. However, often, this is not the case. In such cases, it is crucial to seek professional help. Fortunately, cognitive-behavioral therapy is very effective for social anxiety. If you are struggling with social anxiety, don't hesitate to seek help. A little effort can significantly change your life.

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