Social anxiety is more than negative thoughts

In some ways, I feel I’ve made a mistake in dealing with my social anxiety in the past. I did my best to cope with it on my own. I dismissed both the disease and its effects by not believing I deserved happiness. But one thing I failed to pick up on is how my SA manifested in my life.

I learned anxiety is a mind racing with thoughts, yet when I looked at my mind, I failed to find such a problem; I think more when I’m not stressed.

However, all that changed when I learned about the biology of stress and anxiety in my nutrition classes. Books such as Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Highly Sensitive Peron (HSPs) by Elaine Aron. Psychology says neuroticism is partly an inherited trait through our DNA. I’ve since learned more including  Amygdala Hijacking, or what John Gottman calls Emotional Flooding.

I learned that my anxiety is more of a visceral reaction to a situation; the body’s own stress response takes over in Fight, Flight or Freeze

What a hijack or flooding feels like differs with individuals, but what it can include is

  • You can’t seem to think straight because your emotions are all over the place
  •  You have a desire to flee, clam up, or get upset over little things
  •  Physical symptoms like muscle aching, sweaty palms, blushing, feeling hot
  •  forgetting information, even the obvious stuff like names of friends or what was just said by others

No rational or coherent thoughts can be found because the sensations and emotions are too extreme. It makes it impossible to resolve hurt feelings or to communicate clearly. HSPs are particularly prone to hijacking or flooding because our nervous systems are easily overstimulated and more sensitive to stimuli.

I remember those times I’ve been overwhelmed with fear in social situations. I walk a well-trodden path after those moments of defensiveness, stonewalling, and self-criticism. I feel unworthy of love because I thought something was wrong with me. I didn’t understand why it happened or what to do with it. But learning about these hijacks more made me realise something. Dealing with and facing the fear would have been a better strategy than avoidance. I only wish I had learned this sooner.

Social phobia

Instead of calling our problem social anxiety maybe a better term from some it Social Phobia.

NHS defines a phobia as 

A phobia is an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal. Phobias are more pronounced than fears. They develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object.
If a phobia becomes very severe, a person may organise their life around avoiding the thing that’s causing them anxiety. As well as restricting their day-to-day life, it can also cause a lot of distress.

Like a fear of spiders or heights (which I’m also afraid of), it regards the problem more as something biochemical, not just negative thoughts. You can’t reason with it or talk it out of existence because it’s part of our evolutionary past, what we are as humans. It’s our sympathetic nervous system doing what it’s supposed to do.

It’s not just anxiety but a real, often paralysing, debilitating fear or emotional storms that paralyses us. With such a phobia of snakes, there maybe only one way to deal with them- Exposure Therapy.

Patients are gradually exposed to fear-causing stimuli, from artificial to the real thing. So for snakes, you get to be around snakes, perhaps at first just pictures, then being in the same room, but at a distance, then touching, then holding. Slowly, the fear subsides as exposure retains your nervous system to learn there is no danger here.

Or in the extreme Flooding (as a therapy) where the sufferers are put into the actual situation that causes fear, no gradual build-up. So it’s immediately to hold the snake.

What phobias and exposure therapy show is that for some people, we need to treat Social Anxiety as a phobia. Talking therapy may help, but it’s never going to be enough; we need to be in those situations that make us afraid. We need to treat the SA with the respect it deserves and the attention it needs and not dismiss it as trivial, which is the mistake I made.

Looking back, I don’t think I took my Social Anxiety/Phobia seriously enough. I couldn’t bear to face the fear, so I found excuses to avoid it.

Not recognising an amygdala hijack for what it was, I never sought to explain it or find a therapist to help. I just thought there was something wrong with me when I became so emotional. As such, it kept me a prisoner for longer than it perhaps should.

By regarding it as a phobia, I see it for what it is, and my attitude has changed. It’s a visceral, biochemical reaction, not just the overthinking of negative thoughts. It’s a recognition that mind and body are not separate, yet we often think they are.

Such a problem deserves that kind of respect and attention because its effects can be so pervasive, damaging and complex to treat. It’s also a lesson to offer ourselves more compassion. To stop thinking we’re flawed or weak but recognise it’s a function of our biology. We’re not broken but made this way. Such facts can help us accept our fears and prevent the spiral of shame that thwarts us from seeking help and keeps us alone.

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Image Credit : Katarzyna Białasiewicz

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