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The Social Anxiety Spiral

There are five factors that maintain social anxiety.

What keeps social anxiety going? Why doesn't it simply go away on its own? After all, a certain percentage of people with depression improve without treatment. This isn't the case with social anxiety disorder. Why is the fear of disapproval so chronic and unrelenting?

Avoiding isn't the answer.

With any phobia, avoidance is a defining feature. It’s an automatic reaction to fear. And the immediate reduction in anxiety is a huge payoff. But it’s not a long-term solution. Avoidance maintains anxiety and even makes it worse for several reasons.

  1. Avoidance prevents a process called habituation from taking place. With habituation, your body becomes accustomed to a certain situation — it learns not to react so strongly. Habituation only takes place with repeated exposure, or contact, with the feared situation. So if you practice avoidance, your body doesn't have a chance to calm down, to learn on a physical level that's not in danger.
  2. Avoidance prevents your thinking patterns from changing. When you avoid something you fear, you don't learn that you'll survive.
  3. Avoidance lowers your self-esteem. Over time, as you continually avoid situations, you begin to lose your confidence and feel like a failure.

Thinking can cause more trouble.

Faulty thinking patterns also keep many people stuck in the anxiety spiral. People with social anxiety disorder make two fundamental errors in the way they think about social or performance situations. These errors are called probability and severity distortions.

Probability distortions include overestimating the likelihood that something will go wrong and that people will judge you negatively. Severity distortions are when you see receiving criticism or disapproval as a catastrophe. Even if people disapprove of us sometimes, the consequences usually aren't as horrible as you imagine.

Worrying makes it worse.

Worry involves projecting fear into the future. It's that barrage of “what if” questions and associated anticipation and dread of something awful happening. People with social anxiety disorder worry about social or performance events for weeks, even months, before they take place.

Why is worry so difficult to overcome? Somehow you think if you worry enough, you can prevent something horrible from happening. And if nothing terrible occurs, the idea that worrying did help is reinforced. Or you say to yourself, it was just luck. Next time I will probably screw up.

Paying attention to the wrong things can backfire.

When socially anxious people enter situations they perceive as potentially threatening, their attention goes in two directions. First, they focus on a picture in their mind, a mental image, of how they believe they must appear to others. This picture is usually inaccurate and distorted.

At the same time, socially anxious people scan the “audience," the people around them, for any indication of disapproval. Because they're looking for negative feedback, they will probably find it. Or, they'll see disapproval when it's not really there. This negative feedback reinforces their distorted internal snapshot and further exaggerates it.

Low mood makes it worse.

Mood is the final factor to consider in the social anxiety cycle. You may find when you're in a good mood, you're able to do more things socially, and with more comfort than usual. When you're feeling down in the dumps, you may be more likely to hide out in your house, not wanting to talk to anyone.

When people believe they can only perform socially when all conditions are good, they continue to limit their opportunities.

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child.

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