You're about to talk to someone. But somehow you start blushing and sweating. Your gut twists. Your mind kicks in overdrive, buzzing, screaming,… but nothing comes out. Not a word. You’re paralyzed. Gripped by anxiety,… dreading judgment.
If you feel like this, you are not alone. But why do you feel this way? Why do you experience social anxiety? And what can you do about it? So you can feel confident instead.
Social anxiety has always existed. But the last few years, somehow, more and more people suffer from it.
Root causes of social anxiety
There are several overlapping causes of social anxiety. There are more classical causes. But also contemporary causes that afflict your spirit. To better understand, let's analyze them a bit. There are:
- Learned Behavior
- Negative bias
- Addictive behavior
- Fear of Missing Out
1.1 Learned Behavior
- Past experiences conditioned you for a strong emotional response now
There might be some bad moments in your past. Ones you remember with dread. You might have been humiliated, bullied or shamed. Something that shook you to the core of your being. These experiences have conditioned you to be anxious. You’ve been treated badly in the past, so now you dread similar situations or people and socializing in general.
For example, you’ve been harshly rejected by one of your schoolmates. So now you dread approaching people, because it hurt so much back then.
1.2 Negative bias
- A tendencey to negative thinking induces insecurity
You might be predisposed to negative thinking. You either developed it or inherited a negative bias. It's a tendency to think you perform badly, especially in social situations. Part of it is thinking everybody is always scrutinizing you. You become obsessed with (avoiding) making mistakes. Fearing to be shamed and judged because of your failures.
You'll have thoughts like:
- “I’m just,… weird”
- “People don’t think I matter”
- “I'm making them uncomfortable”.
These thoughts create bad (perceived) outcomes, distilling into negative beliefs, creating more negative thoughts. And so the negative spiral continues.
- Over the top survival response causes strong anxiety
It is likely that (limited) social anxiety has an evolutionary purpose. Humans are herd animals. We need each other. In the past, this was especially essential because being part of your tribe meant survival. Losing your group meant death. On the other hand being accepted and liked in the group got you mates, security and, food.
But fitting in is not always easy. So one struggles to be accepted. Which is better than banishment and consequent death. That is why you are so keen to be regarded positively by people. So some social anxiety is a natural phenomenon, it helps keep the group together. It forces you to work to be accepted.
But if your anxiety response is too strong, it creates the opposite effect. If it makes you a nervous wreck, you are no good for the survival of the tribe. Severe anxiety prevents you to act to be part of the group. Even being shunned because of it.
- Constant sensory overload numbs your natural motivation
More recent research on social anxiety also points to our constant exposure to information. You are constantly stimulated by a bright lit screen. Your phone, laptop and tv keep you satiated with a limitless feed of information flashing before your eyes. Whether it is 24/7 news, social media, podcasts, video games or porn - there is too much input to process. Making you experience a constant sensory overload.
From a survival perspective more information is helpful. That's why body releases a shot of dopamine for finding novel knowledge. It makes you feel good and motivated to find more.
But we're not evolved to the amount of information we're exposed to now. The inexhaustible internet constantly overloads your senses and reward system. Constantly triggering you in the essence of your being.
On top of that - these mediums are designed to keep you hooked. Force fed stimuli overload your dopamine systems. Sure it makes you feel good for a bit - but it also numbs you to normal levels of dopamine. You’ll need more and more new stimuli to be motivated.
Dopamine normally triggers you to socialize. But for some people, after surging their reward system, social motivation can't reach the minimal threshold for social action. If that happens, staying at home feeling ‘meh’, feels better than going out socializing. Especially when you can feel better with a few clicks. This mismatch in motivation results in crippling social anxiety.
1.5 Addictive behavior
- Less social motivation leads to more media addiction - leading to less social motivation etc.
Modern media and drugs are a bit similar. Both induce a huge dopamine spike. When things go badly in your life, it is an easy fix to feel good for a bit. But the flight towards dopamine kicks and resulting addictions are strongly correlated with a bad social life.
The theory is, you are more likely to get addicted if your social life sucks. If you have loving friends and family, the odds of getting hooked are smaller.
So your information addiction deteriorates your social motivation. Causing you to cling more to overstimulation. Resulting in more deterioration, more stimuli, less social drive, and on and on and on….
- Constant comparison to thousands of other peoples' highly curated feeds makes you anxious
Another common cause for anxiety is the Fear Of Missing Out. Pretty self-explanatory. Looking at social media, you can constantly envy your colleagues, classmates and, celebrities. All those nice holidays, beautiful people and great food! Somehow you feel you are behind in life and should keep up!
You constantly compare your behind-the-scenes with everyone’s highlight reel. Your internal turmoils versus highly curated images. Your single life compared to thousands of people. Constantly feeling belittled, left behind, foolish, ugly and not part of the gang. Actually making "influencers" money by making yourself miserable.
- Little exposure to challenges during your youth leave you unable to cope with risks now
Affluence has changed society in the century. It's one of the reasons most of our parents had fewer children. Instead of having 8 siblings, we have 1 or 2. That makes us a lot more special. On top of that, our entire capitalist culture is based on limiting risk and maximizing profit. The results is that parents protect what is scarce and the most important, their kids!
Sure protecting your kid is basic parental instinct. But because of above reasons it resulted in to overprotection by mom and dad. Being sheltered from potential dangers, but also potential challenges and growth.
This way a lot of us were less exposed to (reasonable) risks in our youth. You’ve experienced few real setbacks, risks and adventures, so you also didn't learn to cope with negative and ambiguous experiences.
You need to challenge yourself to grow. Nobody runs a marathon on the first try. You need to train and built up to it. Same with social challenges. You can’t just chat up to the hottest guy/girl in town if you can poorly talk with colleagues.
If you haven't learned to cope with risks, even small challenges seem like huge hurdles that scare you shitless.
That's the list of important causes of social anxiety in our modern age. Now we have an overview - we can take a look in the next blog at: what prevents you from solving social anxiety; positive mindsets; letting go of your self-focus and how to overcome your anxiety by exposing yourself step by step.
[This is part of a blog series on social anxiety. Where we delve into what causes your anxiety, what prevents you from solving it, challenging negative thoughts, embracing positive mindsets, letting go of self-focus and how to overcome your anxiety by exposing yourself step by step.]