Feeling a pang of anxiety, or a wave of “Eugh, I’d rather just stay home” before you leave the house, is far more common than you might think.
Human beings are hardwired to feel anxious in social situations. A flutter in the stomach. Sweaty palms. Maybe some rumination about what on earth you’ll talk about.
Thousands of years ago, social ostracism meant certain death, so we’ve evolved to fear the possibility of rejection. How would we eat? Where would we find shelter? Inclusion in the tribe was critical to our survival.
Today, the “biological need to be liked” in Stefan Hoffmann’s words, hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it would be abnormal to experience absolutely no discomfort in social situations.
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These sensations become a problem, however, when they critically interfere with our day to day lives. Hoffman, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University, says people have cause for concern if they are “missing out on many opportunities in life”, like dating or making an important speech at work. For some, social anxiety can be so debilitating that they “might not marry, they might have very few friends, they might not go out for parties…”
Individuals who suffer from social anxiety also engage in "post-event rumination", meaning that even when the social experience went well, they will interpret it in a negative way, and replay any weaknesses in their mind over and over again.
But recent research out of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, suggests that there is one, small thing individuals can do to overcome their debilitating nerves.
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The team of psychologists discovered that when socially anxious people performed acts of kindness, from washing up someone's dishes, to mowing a neighbour's lawn, to giving someone a compliment, their anxiety levels significantly decreased.
Previous research has demonstrated a relationship between social anxiety and self-focused attention, meaning that looking outwards rather than inwards might be the perfect way to dissipate crippling anxiety. Doing good deeds for others automatically turns your focus to the outside world, leaving less room for obsessive self-reflection.
For anyone who suffers from extreme social anxiety, there are a host of options, from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to medication.
As paralysing as the condition can be, it is comforting to know that of all mental health conditions, social anxiety is one of the most treatable.