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Social Anxiety: How it is Maintained and What can be Done About it

It is estimated that about 1 in 5 people will experience significant anxiety at some point in their life.  Social anxiety, in particular, is defined as intense anxiety that arises in social situations, whether one is experiencing it firsthand or merely thinking about it.  Of course, it’s normal to experience a bit of anxiety in social situations like when giving a public speech, but there are some who experience such intense fear that they simply avoid these situations altogether.


Social phobia is a clinical term that is used to describe individuals that have an intense fear of social situations, which results in attempts to avoid such situations entirely. Typically, such a person fears that he or she will be embarrassed or humiliated in some way, or judged negatively by others. Lets take a closer look at what causes social anxiety, how it is maintained, and how it can be combatted.


What Causes Social Anxiety?

The exact cause of anxiety is still unknown, however, researchers suggest that there are both biological and physiological contributing factors at work. With respect to biological factors, although no one gene has been identified to be associated with social anxiety, research on families and twin studies have suggested that some individuals may be more susceptible than others in developing anxiety.


With respect to physiological factors, it is suggested that stressors in a person’s life, their upbringing, and their lifestyle may contribute to anxiety. For example, if one has learned to fear spiders, and has not had the opportunity to “unlearn” this fear, then he or she may continue to avoid them for the rest of his or her life.


How is Social Anxiety Maintained?

Anxiety can definitely take over one’s life if maintained, especially if the severity of it worsens over time. Two factors that maintain social anxiety are avoidance and negative thinking patterns.


Firstly, although avoidance may lead to a decrease in the experience of anxiety, particularly because the situation that is fearful is avoided altogether, it prevents one from giving him or herself an opportunity to realize that social situations can be positive experiences, too. Avoidance, therefore, prevents one from disconfirming fears.


Secondly, people struggling with social anxiety often develop negative thinking patterns, which help maintain social anxiety. For example, some who have developed a fear of social situations might think about how it will just result in sweating, shaking, blushing, and being judged negatively. They may also develop negative self-beliefs, such as being incompetent or not being good enough.  If these negative thoughts go unchallenged, they can turn into negative thinking patterns that do nothing but maintain one’s social anxiety.


Now that we have learned what causes social anxiety and how it is maintained, it is important that we take a look at ways to tackle it.


How can Social Anxiety be Managed?

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective at helping manage anxiety. For social anxiety specifically, CBT is used to help direct an individual’s thoughts in a more rational and adaptive direction, with the goal of helping him or her stop the avoidance behaviour.


Consistent with the CBT approach, it is not the situation itself that makes one feel or respond in a particular way, but rather how one perceives the situation. For instance, if you are giving a speech to a group of 40 people, you might feel and act differently if you believe that the audience will judge you negatively, compared to when your belief is that they will love it.


Often, we are not aware of our own thoughts and beliefs because they are automatic and come up without us even realising it. So take the time to reflect on your thoughts and ask yourself if they are valid. You might find that merely identifying that your thought may be invalid has the potential to change how you feel and behave in a situation.


Social anxiety can be managed. If you are having difficulty managing social anxiety, get help when you’re ready. A person experienced in this area might be extremely helpful in combatting it once and for all.


Farah Premji, MSc., specializes in the areas of  anxiety and confidence, as well as many others. For more information on Farah and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.