What is Social Anxiety and Why Does It Exist?
Posted: August 17, 2022
Social anxiety can be a debilitating condition. It can have significant interference with our ability to connect with others, which is vital for most people.
The condition is marked by fear that others will see how anxious you are. And/or, that you will say something embarrassing or insulting. Because of this fear, you either avoid social situations or engage in them with intense emotional discomfort. The anxiety and thoughts that go with the anxiety are so distracting. So much so, our social performance declines. As a result, we have difficulty listening to others and being present.
From the perspective of evolution, it makes sense why we would experience some social anxiety. When we were evolving in tribes, if we said too many embarrassing or insulting things, we may be kicked out of the tribe. Then, we would be vulnerable to starvation, predators, or another tribe. Or at the very least, it could make it difficult to find acceptance among our peers and find a mate. This makes surviving and reproducing very unlikely. So it makes sense to be aware of what we do and say socially. And, to be somewhat anxious so we avoid saying or doing things that are embarrassing and might contribute to ostracization.
We no longer exist in tribes, but our brains behave the same way.
Avoidance of these thoughts and feelings can lead us into a cycle of avoiding social situations. This can calm our anxiety in the short term. But, it also reinforces our avoidance behaviors and isolates us from others.
How Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Can Help
Using concepts and skills from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can be very helpful in dealing with this condition. Through ACT, we can learn to observe our thoughts that might be contributing to our anxiety. For example, we may have thoughts such as, “What if I say something embarrassing? No one will like me.” Or, “What if I say something insulting and someone gets mad at me?” Through ACT, we can learn to observe these thoughts. By doing so, we can take a step back from them, and allow what’s important to us, what matters to us, what makes life rich, to dictate our next move. We can also allow our thoughts to hook us and dictate how we behave (avoidance). ACT helps us to do the same thing with our feelings. Instead of trying to control the anxiety through avoidance, we can learn to accept the feelings and continuously bring our attention to engaging in conversations and connecting with others. We learn to see our thoughts and feelings as “background noise” and focus our attention on our present moment experience.
How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Can Help
I often like to help my clients with fears and phobias by combining skills and concepts from ACT and CBT. CBT can help us learn to use exposure by approaching the feared stimuli. This often leads to habituation. Exposure is simply a process of intentionally and repeatedly engaging in behaviors that contribute to anxiety. There are two types of exposure techniques: gradual exposure and classical exposure. Gradual exposure helps us to approach our feared situations over time. We begin with what we fear the least, and move up a hierarchy until we are approaching the most feared situation. Classical exposure means beginning with the most feared stimulus and approaching it first. For example, gradual exposure for someone with a fear of heights might mean beginning on the third rung of a ladder and moving up the hierarchy. In time, one may find themselves looking over the rim of a hot air balloon. Classical exposure in this situation would mean starting in the hot air balloon.
A reduction in fear is the goal
In both exposure techniques, it is important to remain in the feared situation until your anxiety dips at least 50 percent. Or, if you have stayed in the anxiety-provoking situation for around 45 minutes. What tends to happen is that our bodies habituate. This means our brains stop setting off the alarm. They recognize that we are not reacting to the fear alarms they are sending out in the form of physical anxiety symptoms like a rapid heartbeat. As a result, our brains no longer experience intense anxiety. With social anxiety, gradual exposure might look like repeated smiling and saying “hello” to many people at a party. Or, calling various department stores, again and again, asking clerks if the store is selling a particular item. Then, moving up our hierarchy to something a little scarier. On the other hand, classical exposure might look like going to a party and repeatedly engaging in conversations with others.
It can also be helpful to learn and refine social skills.
This can be done through psychoeducation and role-playing. For example, your anxiety therapist can help you learn the “spotlight technique.” This technique helps you learn to ask open-ended questions, paraphrase others’ responses, validate others, and keep the “spotlight” on them. This shows them that you are a good listener. As a result, people will often feel rewarded for talking with you because they feel heard. Your therapist can also teach you that conversations involve appropriate eye contact. Plus, it is important to have a balance between talking and listening. Social anxiety can be debilitating. But, learning to apply ACT concepts and skills, and those from CBT, can be very helpful and help you to overcome this very challenging condition. This can help you engage in what is important to you and what is meaningful to you. All without the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interfering.
Begin Anxiety Treatment In Kentucky
Overcoming social anxiety can feel insurmountable at times. But I would be honored to support you in better managing your anxiety symptoms. I’m happy to offer support from my Erlanger, KY-based therapy practice. To start your therapy journey, please follow these simple steps:
- Contact me to learn more about therapy
- Start the anxiety treatment process
- Begin overcoming your social anxiety symptoms
Other Services Offered With Kyle Linnemann Counseling
Anxiety treatment isn’t the only service I offer from our Erlanger, KY-based therapy practice. I’m also happy to provide a variety of services to help support your mental health. You may be looking for a therapist specializing in bereavement/grief counseling, and anger management. Or, you may be looking for someone to help with ACT therapy, individual relationship issues, and general depression/anxiety/stress. Regardless, anxiety treatment can be a great next step. I am happy to offer further support with Humana therapy coverage, other forms of insurance, and both in-person and online therapy in Kentucky and Ohio. Feel free to learn more via my blog, FAQ, and resources page.