Social anxiety is one of the most frequent and debilitating anxieties around. The effects range from mild discomfort in social situations to full scale avoidance of and panic attacks during social events and even phobic responses such as agoraphobia. A series of research studies examining this common series of anxieties have found that people who have at some stage in their life been a victim of bullying, criticism and or rejection in any situation are significantly more likely to develop a social anxiety compared to the rest of the population.
Indeed the definition of a social anxiety centres around the fear of scrutiny or negative evaluation/judgement by others. This usually results in people having the feeling that they are not good enough for other people, and/or the assumption that others will automatically reject them and includes often intense feelings of insecurity in a wide range of situations.
It is estimated that about 1 in 5 or 20% of the population suffer from some form of social anxiety. This can be a severely debilitating and distressing disorder for the sufferer which can have massive negative effects on the quality of life of the sufferer and as a result I pay particular attention to research in this area. A student at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Klint Fung has just gained his Masters this month with an interesting series of experiments which helps us to understand a bit more about social anxiety.
What Fung did was get a group of 88 people and initially test them for their level of social anxiety. He then subjected them to an experimental social event where they would be either rejected (rarely interacted with) or included (frequently positively interacted with) in the activity of the event. All the participants were then invited to a second social event.
The research found that rejection or inclusion from just one event had a significant effect on the anxiety the individuals felt towards and during the second event. Importantly it was discovered that virtually all of the anxiety experienced stemmed from the hurt feelings induced during the first event.
It would appear and is backed up by other research that how hurt we feel following an incident can then predict how sensitive we are likely to be to the possibility of future exclusion especially when this is interpreted as rejection by the individual.
What this and other pieces of research shows is that treatment which helps to reduce sensitivity to exclusion and helps the individual to regulate their own emotions (prevent the hurt feelings) is likely to be most effective. Certainly from my experience the development of emotion regulation techniques coupled with cognitive reappraisal (both strategies I teach) have a significant impact on social anxiety disorders.
Indeed one client I finished with this week went from agoraphobic (unable to leave the house due to social anxiety) to returning to work in 16 days.
On Wednesday 3rd September I will be running a live online seminar about 'How We Catch Fear and Anxiety'. Click here for more details.
Fung, K. (2014) How does rejection induce social anxiety? A test of hurt feelings as a mechanism. University of British Columbia - Masters Thesis August 2014.
Levinson, C. A., Langer, J. K., & Rodebaugh, T. L. (2013). Reactivity to exclusion prospectively predicts social anxiety symptoms in young adults. Behavior Therapy, 44(3), 470-478.
Lissek, S., Levenson, J., Biggs, A. L., Johnson, L. L., Ameli, R., Pine, D. S., & Grillon, C. (2008). Elevated fear conditioning to socially relevant unconditioned stimuli in social anxiety disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 165(1), 124-132.