Social anxiety is not just negative thoughts

In some ways, I feel I have made a mistake in dealing with my Social Anxiety. I did my best to cope with it on my own. I dismissed both the disease and its effect by not believing I deserved happiness.

My sensitivity and anxiety was just something I had to live with, a flaw I couldn’t change. [It just shows how low self-worth can perpetuate suffering]

‘It’s anxiety, well we all get that, no big deal. It’s not as bad as I think.’ Even if I admitted to my fear and worries I would have dismissed it as unimportant. I convinced myself social connections were not important to me.

What has prompted as change now was learning about Amygdala Hijacking, or what John Gottman calls Emotional Flooding when writing about my HSP in Love post.

Such moments of extreme fear are like a panic attack. The bodies own stress response takes over in Fight, Flight or Freeze

What a hijack or flooding feel like differs with individuals but

  • 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. This makes it impossible to resolve hurt feelings or to communicate clearly.

HSPs are particularly prone to the hijack or flood because our nervous systems easily stimulated, more sensitive to stimuli.

I remember those times I’ve been overwhelmed with fear in social situations. I walk a well trodden path, defensiveness, stonewalling, self criticism. I didn’t understand why 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 the better strategy than avoidance. I only wish I had learned this sooner.

Social phobia I feel maybe a better label. 

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. 

Social anxiety is not just a fear, it’s a phobia. It’s something biochemical, not just negative thoughts. You can’t reason or talk it out of existence because it part of our evolutionary past, what we are as humans. It’s our sympathetic nervous system doing what its supposed to do.

It’s not just anxiety, but a real, often paralysing, debilitating fear, like phobias are. Such as snakes, spiders or heights. It’s normal, irrational, acceptable to have them, and they do create emotional storms that paralyse us.

With such panic attacks, like a phobia of snakes there is maybe only one way to deal with them. Exposure Therapy. Patients are gradually exposed to the fear causing stimulus, 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 with help from a therapist.

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

What phobias and exposure therapy show is we need to treat Social Anxiety/phobia in the same way as snakes, spiders etc. A talking therapy may help, but it’s never going to be enough. We need to be in those situations that make us afraid.

That is, we need to to treat the SA with the respect it deserves, and the attention it needs. Not to dismiss it because we feel ashamed, uncomfortable or to dismiss it as trivial, (which is the mistake I made).

Looking back, I don’t think I took my Social anxiety seriously enough. I couldn’t 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 therapy to help. I just thought there was something wrong with me when I became so emotional. As such it kept me, prisoner, for longer than it perhaps should.

By seeing it as a phobia, I see it for what it is, my attitude has changed. It’s a visceral, biochemical, reaction not just 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 and because its effects can be so pervasive, negative and hard to treat.

It’s also a lesson that offers 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 fear and prevent a spiral of shame that thwarts us seeking help and keeps us alone.

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Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’

Emotional Hijacking: What happens to your brain when you lose control?

9 Common Traits of Highly Sensitive People | Psychology Today

Image Credit : Katarzyna Białasiewicz