Why is Social Anxiety Such a Big Problem?
So many people feel anxious in social situations, but why should this be?
Social anxiety was a huge problem for Shirley. In fact, it was spoiling her life.
"I've always been shy and self-conscious, but thought it would naturally decrease as I got older. If anything, it's got worse!"
Shirley described palpitations, trembling, breathlessness, and miserable dread in the hours before a social event. "The crazy thing is I like people, I want to have friends; but as soon as the attention goes onto me, I feel like curling up into a ball and hiding."
Over the years, I've seen countless people sick and tired of social anxiety, all wanting to become socially confident, relaxed, and at ease around current and potential friends. Social anxiety stops us getting what we need to live happily. So just how widespread is social anxiety?
Social anxiety: An all-too-common problem
Although it was small comfort for her, Shirley was just one of the millions of people who suffer from social anxiety (of course, she no longer does). Fear of social situations afflicts men and women, young and old. It's one of the most common fears around; and if left unchecked, can make for a life of loneliness.
In one study reported by the UK's Mental Health Foundation, it was found that one in ten people feel lonely and isolated (1). People hate the crippling feeling of social anxiety because it prevents them meeting their fundamental human need for social connection. We all need to eat and drink, but imagine if there was something inside of you that prevented you meeting those needs. That's what it can feel like to have social anxiety; as if you constantly trip yourself up.
Why do we need other people so much? And why does the fear of social rejection haunt us?
Are you inside or outside the tribe?
In times gone by, social rejection could have meant death. This sounds dramatic, but we humans aren't as fast, strong, or sharp-toothed as many of the big predators out there. We had our brains and strength in numbers. As part of a tribe, if you were sick for a few days, other tribal members could hunt and gather for you until you returned to health.
For hundreds of thousands of years, being cast out from the tribe meant facing life (with all its predators) alone; which probably meant you wouldn't be around for very long. No wonder we all still want to connect and make contacts. Our brains may even be hard-wired to fear social rejection.
Social rejection can actually hurt us; no wonder we fear it
As if to underline just how important social connections are to us, the brain has even wired social rejection to the 'pain pathways'. American researchers found that being socially snubbed or rejected made the brain's "pain areas light up" (2). It seems feelings of social rejection share neural pathways with feelings of physical pain; so there really is such a thing as the 'pain of rejection'. No wonder so many people worry about how they come across to others and fear possible rejection. For some people, this fear can be too much and drive up social anxiety to unbearable levels.
Paradoxically, part of the treatment for social anxiety involves learning not to care so much about the risk of rejection. So what are some of the benefits of learning to be more socially confident and relaxed?
The healthy pleasures and multiple benefits of social confidence
Research shows that the wider our social networks, the healthier, happier, and even richer we tend to be (3). Knowing lots of people provides us with more career opportunities, more chances to meet romantic partners, and - perhaps most importantly - a sense of security that, if something goes wrong, people will be around to care and help.
Meeting new friends makes life interesting. Seeing new connections as opportunities rather than threats keeps us feeling creative and alive. Shirley had reached the point (in her later thirties) where she was sick of being a 'wallflower', of not being able to speak in groups, of appearing cold or aloof because she was really shy, of really wanting to go to parties but feeling too afraid of what people might think. Bit by bit, she built her confidence; she learned to develop friendships, to be part of a tribe - many tribes, to speak in front of groups, to care less what others might think. She still occasionally gets a faint echo of the old jitters, but as she describes it: "Faint butterflies are much better than paralyzing social phobia!"