Why Do We Have Social Anxiety?
Humans are inherently social creatures and yet many suffer from anxiety that makes being social difficult, if not downright painful. How and why does this happen?
The short answer is that scientists and doctors don’t entirely know. Understanding anxiety, in all its forms, is in its’ infancy despite affecting millions of people worldwide. The most widely suggested contributors to the cause of social anxiety include inherited traits and family background, life experiences and environment, and brain structure.
Regarding the role one’s brain structure may play, researchers are making great strides thanks to advanced neuroimaging technology. Scientists are gaining insight into social anxiety and social anxiety disorder in ways that were previously only subject to speculation. Of particular promise are studies that show increased activity in the brain’s amygdala in people with social anxiety compared to those without. The amygdala regulates emotions, survival instincts and memory.
Some of the findings in these studies, although not totally conclusive, suggest that people with social anxiety may have an increased tendency or bias toward ways of processing information in the brain that may contribute to their anxiety. These include a higher tendency to respond more negatively or fearful to social signals, people’s facial expressions and eye contact. Also, those with social anxiety showed more of a tendency to selectively remember the negative information about oneself and one’s social performances instead of the positive or neutral memories. Those with social anxiety showed a bias toward making negative evaluations about past events and negative predictions about their future performance. Lastly, participants showed a tendency toward spending more time processing threat-related information than those without social anxiety.
Does that happen to describe you too? Do you tend to respond in a fearful way in social situations? Do you think predict your presentation will be a flop and that you’ll embarrass yourself at the annual manager’s meeting? Do you already dread that happy hour you said you’d attend? Do you play over and over in your mind how awful it was to go into the grocery store or to your child’s school?
What You Can Do
If you do, no problem! Although we don’t yet know the evolutionary function of this brain structure, we do have many strategies to help compensate for it. The words “tendency” and “bias” give us clues as to where you start. They illustrate a way your brain may be “neurologically leaning” but your brain isn’t set in stone.
In order to stop these leanings from causing your social anxiety, you can increase your awareness toward them and remind yourself these are just your biases talking. Look at the situation again, but this time from the perspective of someone without these biases. For example, “If I didn’t have this worst-case-scenario bias, I’d look at the company’s upcoming happy hours as an opportunity to get to know more people from the office.”