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Anxiety

People with Social Anxiety Don't Want to Be Alone

Avoiding people is neither their preference nor their solution.

Key points

  • People with social anxiety still enjoy spending time with others.
  • They are generally happier in the presence of romantic partners and close friends than in the presence of coworkers, superiors, or strangers.
  • Thus, avoiding all socialization is not the solution for overcoming social anxiety.
 Vladimir Fedotov/Unsplash
Source: Vladimir Fedotov/Unsplash

A new paper appearing in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders argues that people who suffer from social anxiety actually derive a lot of pleasure from meeting new people and spending time with others—and that treatment for a social anxiety disorder should focus on methods to encourage social engagement among people who try to avoid it.

“Quality contact with other people serves as a reliable mood enhancement strategy,” say the researchers, led by Fallon Goodman of the University of South Florida. “We wondered if the emotional benefits of socializing are present even for those with a psychological disorder defined by social distress and avoidance: social anxiety disorder.”

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 87 U.S. adults, 42 of whom met clinical criteria for social anxiety disorder, to participate in a two-week study. Over the course of the study, the researchers asked participants at various points throughout the day to indicate (1) their current level of happiness and (2) whether or not they were in the company of others. Responses were collected via participants’ smartphones.

The researchers predicted that people with social anxiety disorder would report lower levels of happiness on average due to their disorder but that they would not necessarily feel worse when in the company of other people.

This is exactly what they found. The authors state, “Contrary to lay belief, we found that people with social anxiety disorder were happier when with others than alone. Feeling anxious or concerned about socializing does not preclude experiencing pleasure while socializing.”

A follow-up study examined whether certain types of social situations were more likely to make people feel happy than others. The researchers used a similar study design as in their earlier study, but they also asked participants to indicate who they were with when completing the questions. The categories were: alone, romantic partner, close friend, family member, superior, coworker/neighbor, acquaintance, or stranger.

The researchers found that people reported higher levels of happiness when in the presence of romantic partners and close friends than when they were with superiors, coworkers, and neighbors. This was true of both socially anxious and non-socially anxious individuals. And, replicating their earlier result, they found that both socially anxious and non-socially anxious individuals were generally happier when in the presence of other people.

The authors hope their research encourages new lines of treatment for the many people—approximately 300 million worldwide, according to recent estimates—struggling with social anxiety.

“One stereotype of someone with social anxiety is a person who would rather be alone in their bedroom than interacting with the world,” says Goodman. “This is simply not true. People with social anxiety are not devoid of the basic desire for human connection; they just have trouble obtaining it in certain situations or with certain people. If we start from that assumption, then we can reduce problematic myths about social anxiety.”

LinkedIn image: Michael Vano/Shutterstock

References

Goodman, F. (Interview) A psychology professor teaches us how to overcome our social anxiety. Therapytips.org, November 11, 2021.

Goodman, F. R., Rum, R., Silva, G., & Kashdan, T. B. (2021). Are people with social anxiety disorder happier alone?. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 84, 102474.

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