Social anxiety is a common mental disorder in today’s world. According to estimates, around 7% of the US population were diagnosed in the past year while about 12% of American adults experience the symptoms at some point in their lives. What causes social anxiety?
It is not totally clear what is hiding behind this mental issue. As with most mental disorders, social anxiety seems to be a combination of genetics, brain structure and environment.
Some of the factors that we often find in scientific publications are negative childhood experiences such as bullying or abuse. It makes sense that if you were attacked or abused as a child, you will be cautious and mistrusting towards other people as an adult, possibly having developed a social anxiety disorder.
But today, we won’t focus on these generally accepted causes of social anxiety and will talk about less obvious ones:
Lack of trust and Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development
According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, a person goes through a few stages throughout their life. Each stage occurs at a different age and represents a crucial milestone for the evolution of one’s personality. In each of these periods, a person basically makes a choice between two different options, which defines their further life.
Let’s focus on Erikson’s 1st stage of psychosocial development. It begins at birth and lasts till the child reaches the age of 18 months. The basic choice the person has to make during this stage is trust vs. mistrust.
When the infant’s needs are met and the caregiver is there, the little one will feel secure and will form a sense of trust towards other people. If neglect takes place, then the child will feel threatened and insecure. This may later lead them to form a sense of fear, anxiety and mistrust.
It was an interesting revelation when my therapist told me about Erikson’s stages.
We talked about my social anxiety and she asked me whether I was abandoned or neglected as a child. I wasn’t. My childhood passed in a loving, secure environment, and there were no instances of neglect or abuse.
However, my therapist recommended to ask my parents about any occasions when I was left alone during my first year of life. You see, my social anxiety always stemmed from a lack of trust, not from the fear of rejection. Since my early childhood, I was just overly suspicious and cautious towards other people for no obvious reason. I always felt like there was nothing good to expect from anyone.
And guess what, I talked to my mother and it turned out that as an infant, I had been admitted to a hospital. Due to some absurd internal regulations, she was not allowed to stay with me and thus, I spent a few nights alone in the hospital.
Could this insignificant occasion evolve into a major, life-lasting lack of trust? I don’t know for sure, but everything is possible. A child’s psyche is incredibly fragile, especially in the first years of life.
If you think that a few-month-old infant is left alone every night for one week, and mom doesn’t show for hours, then maybe this experience can be traumatic enough to grow into mistrust and anxiety. Then pair it with other factors like a hypersensitive nervous system and poor social skills, and you have a recipe for social anxiety disorder.
Hypersensitive nervous system
Many studies show that anxiety patients have an overactive amygdala. This is a part of the brain that regulates negative emotional reactions and fear responses. Moreover, this brain region also participates in processing sensory stimuli, including the perception of threat.
In other words, the brains of the people with social and other types of anxiety tend to be overly sensitive to the external stimuli and, in particular, perceived threats. When your brain is experiencing a constant overload with sounds, smells and other sensations, you will inevitably form a coping mechanism for that. And there is one favorite coping mechanism all anxiety sufferers use – avoidance.
Something similar is observed in autistic children with hypersensitivity. The sensory stimuli are that intense for them that they have no choice but to completely isolate themselves from the external world.
What if the causes of social anxiety have similar roots?
For a person with a hypersensitive nervous system, social interaction can be too draining.
Just imagine how many stimuli are simultaneously involved in face-to-face communication except for the actual verbal part of it. Your facial expressions, the sound and the tone of your voice, your body language – nothing escapes the attention of a hypersensitive person.
And when you are that sensitive, at some point, you will become overly cautious. You will start to perceive threats. Why did he look at me this way? What she said didn’t sound very inviting. There was an irony in his words – he must be laughing at me.
Some of these perceived threats may be real – non-verbal communication can indeed reveal many things about someone’s attitude. But most of those will probably have nothing to do with you.
And with time, you will subconsciously learn to perceive other people as threats. Thus, you may start feeling anxious and uneasy about social interaction before it even starts. Do this for years, and at some point, you will form social anxiety responses and behaviors.
When we talk about hypersensitivity, there is also a less scientific approach. You have probably heard about empaths – people who are extremely sensitive to the emotions and vibes of those around them.
There are also indications that social anxiety may stem from this remarkable sensitivity to people’s energy. Is your social anxiety selective? If it shows only when you are around specific people, it can be a negative response to their bad energy.
But again, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these people want to harm you. Sometimes, negative vibes arise from many things – from childhood trauma and mental issues to life hardships the person might be going through. You are just very susceptible to feeling the energy of those around you.
Another sign of the empathic nature of social anxiety is feeling extremely uncomfortable in crowded places. When there are so many people, each projecting their vibe onto the surrounding environment, an empath can easily feel overwhelmed. It’s too intense for them.
If all this sounds like yourself, you may want to check my article “5 Signs Your Social Phobia Is Actually Empathic Sensitivity to People’s Energy” for more information.
Sometimes social anxiety causes are hiding in the most unexpected places
While there is no certainty about what causes social anxiety, we can learn, observe and come up with our own explanations. After all, every case is different. For someone, it may be a traumatic childhood experience, for someone else, anxiety may stem from genetics and brain structure.
If you want to uncover the causes of your social anxiety, you should, first of all, analyze your behaviors and reactions to different situations and people. You may also want to look for its roots in your childhood.
Remember that finding and understanding the roots of your social anxiety will eventually help you overcome it.
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I’d love to talk sometime. My family’s history with anxiety has been studied for 6 generations at Cambridge University. It might be 7 now?? But, I was adopted and my son and I have dabilitating anxiety. Not as bad as my mother. Who had Electro Shock Therapy in the early 70’s. After spending literally a year in her room. Nature vs nurture. I’m a great subject for knowledge. I am hypersensitive and I’m an Empath. Hope to hear from you soon! Love learning-mind.