- People with social anxiety maintain it via thoughts and behaviors as they reflect on social experiences.
- New research identifies the role of neuroticism in perpetuating this cycle of negative self-evaluation.
- By learning to regulate negative emotions, those with social anxiety may start to find joy in socializing.
Reflecting back on a situation that didn’t go well for you is a reasonably common behavior. You may have sent someone an email that you wished you hadn’t or replied sharply to a friend who asked you for some simple advice.
However, for people high in neuroticism, the worries over imagined missteps are serious and continuous. They can’t get a bad situation out of their heads. It’s hard to be happy and carefree if you believe that you’re constantly offending people or doing something else wrong in a social situation.
The Maintenance Factors in Social Anxiety
According to a newly published paper by Western Sydney University’s Caitlin Clague and Quincy Wong (2023), people high in social anxiety are constantly on the lookout for “social-evaluative threat,” meaning the fear that they will do something wrong in the presence of others, leading them to be judged negatively.
As the authors point out, there are two types of social evaluative threat. In the internally focused variety, you think about how badly you’re feeling as you bumble about a social situation. The externally focused type of threat directs your attention to evidence from the reactions of others that will confirm your negative self-perceptions.
There are also differences in the threat assessments you perform prior to entering a situation (anticipatory processing) vs. the negative thoughts you ponder after the situation has drawn to a conclusion (post-event processing). Furthermore, there are safety behaviors that the socially anxious engage in, especially before or during an event that they regard as threatening. Retreating away from a threatening social situation only makes matters worse as others begin to judge them as aloof and unfriendly.
All in all, these total up to no less than seven "maintenance" factors that perpetuate social anxiety. The question is whether neuroticism plays its own independent role in keeping these factors present and ready to do their damage.
Breaking Down the Social Evaluation Process
Using an online sample of 263 adults from the Sydney area (average age= 25 years old; 75 percent female), the Western Sydney University researchers included a broad set of personality measures tapping the related constructs of social anxiety, depression, and neuroticism. The “Extended Post-Event Processing Questionnaire" zeroed in specifically on thoughts associated with social events.
The 15 items on this test asked participants to reflect on what they do after a social event with a prompt such as, “After a social situation is over, did you think about it a lot?” Participants also rated their attentional focus prior to an event such as, “Before a social situation, do you typically try to stop thinking about the situation? "
Consistent with their predictions, after taking depression into account, social anxiety, in general, had positive relationships with negative social evaluation beliefs, internal self-focus, attention toward threat, both anticipatory and post-event processing, and the tendency to engage in safety behaviors. Additionally, however, neuroticism made its own unique contribution to social anxiety.
Rather than affecting the anticipation of threat, as some theories might suggest, neuroticism's impact was stronger in assessments of past events. The authors propose that the reason neuroticism enters so heavily into the picture is that people high in this quality tend to focus on their negative emotions. It’s hard to see anything good about a past situation if you’re dealing with a swarm of unhappy feelings.
Thus, although people high in social anxiety certainly are at risk for negative self-evaluations after social situations, evaluations that perpetuate their anxiety, it is really the neuroticism piece of the equation that keeps their negative affect so high. As the authors concluded, “models of social anxiety disorder may need to be expanded to include the role that neuroticism plays in relation to social anxiety and its maintaining factors” (p. 8).
Turning Down the Neuroticism in Social Anxiety
If neuroticism indeed maintains the negative self-evaluations in people with social anxiety disorder, then interventions aimed at treatment, Clague and Wong maintain, should target neuroticism and not just social anxiety.
You may think that there’s no way that such a longstanding trait as neuroticism can be tamed. After all, if it’s one of the “enduring dispositions” that make up personality, won’t it always endure? Although the Australian authors caution that their results require replication, especially with clinical samples, they believe that they have identified a new important goal of treatment. Minimally, this personality factor should be part of a clinical assessment, which is not the case now.
Once evaluated, a person’s level of neuroticism may even be altered if the therapist uses cognitive restructuring “to encourage cognitive reappraisal for emotion regulation purposes” (p. 8). Rather than focusing on the social anxiety symptoms alone, it could be beneficial for therapists to help these individuals understand and then manage the negative emotions that they constantly experience after interacting with others.
If you are a person who copes with a certain level of social anxiety, knowing that neuroticism can be such an important contributor to the maintenance of your symptoms can be beneficial. After you feel that you’ve completely messed up in a social setting, taking your emotions into account and learning to regulate them could therefore prove beneficial.
To sum up, the factors that contribute to and maintain social anxiety are undoubtedly complex. However, by understanding the role of neuroticism and its link to negative emotions, you can help find more productive and fulfilling ways to get pleasure rather than pain in your relationships.
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Clague, C. A., & Wong, Q. J. J. (2023). Social anxiety and its maintaining factors: Accounting for the role of neuroticism. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. doi: 10.1007/s10862-023-10030-2