Social anxiety is typically related to several issues, including how we related in our family of origin and what our family taught us about feelings; what we learned about relationships from our childhood and adolescent friendships; how we communicate both verbally and nonverbally; how we read other people’s verbal and non-verbal cues; and especially how we avoid or deal with conflict. Another way we may increasingly become socially uncomfortable is by using alcohol or other drugs in social settings so that we can lose some of our ability to comfortably socialize without alcohol or drugs.
Research tells us that anxiety originates in our brain as a response to a potential threat. Our brain is picking up a threat and simply sending chemicals so that we are strong enough to fight, run away, or freeze. This is the fight/flight or freeze response. We call it anxiety when we are overloaded with these chemicals; and we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when we are so traumatized that our daily functioning can be compromised, including difficulty sleeping because of flashbacks, trouble concentrating, fearing something bad will happen in the future, or feeling on edge and anxious.
In early childhood, we may have been taught to go hug a relative or stranger when we did not want to hug them. From this experience, we may have learned to ignore or misunderstand our feelings. We may currently have toxic family members that make us feel anxious because of threat of abandonment or some other chronic conflict. We may extend those feelings to generalize that all people will similarly abandon or have conflict with us. If our family support system is toxic, and we learned to love our toxic family, we did not learn that we have the right to read and trust and act on our feelings. We also learned to love toxic people. Even if we recognize a problem with our support system, we may not know how to protect ourselves and become overwhelmed at the belief that standing up for ourselves will start a conflict Nor do we recognize that a conflict in response to boundaries means the relationship is toxic. We tend to surround ourselves with familiar people, attracting other toxic people into our lives.
We may come to believe we need to tolerate other people’s toxicity or face being alone. We may believe we are emotionally sick rather than recognize our social network is making us sick. Anxiety may be a warning that in certain situations in our environment, there really is a threat, and our ‘anxiety’ is nagging us to set a boundary to protect ourselves. However, we can begin to identify how our development origins can contribute to anxiety and toxic relationships
How we interpret our internal signals affects how we respond to others. When we learn to interpret and trust our feelings, we might recognize that the people we care about may be toxic. If we ignore our warning feelings, the anxiety and depression can grow, and we can experience decreasing self-worth, hopelessness and express anger inappropriately.
Our internal triggers are completely natural and designed to keep us safe and to protect us from danger by making us stronger. When our brain registers slight danger, we may feel a slight nervousness. We can learn ways to pay attention to our company and ascertain if our brain is accurately picking up a threat and signaling us to check in with the person or avoid that person.
Even in new romantic relationships, we may feel nervous, have butterflies in our stomach, and have trouble talking, breathing or feel self-conscious. Romantic movies tell us this is love. Science tells us we are picking up a threat. When warned by our feelings, it may be a good idea to learn to recognize and interpret our response correctly and ask ourselves the right questions to confirm our feelings. We don’t have to tolerate toxic relationships and we don’t have to stay in toxic relationships, and we can learn to leave and seek healthier alternatives with other people who are equally sensitive and caring.
If we are attracting toxic relationships but not setting boundaries because we fear conflict or abandonment, we may begin to stereotype all people as untrustworthy. Building boundaries is not the same as building protective walls. Nice people will respect your walls and will not try very hard to cross your boundaries. Only toxic people will get around or over your walls by badgering you with charm or manipulation because they do not respect boundaries. However, by not letting anyone in, we may be setting ourselves up for loneliness and susceptible to the charms of toxic individuals.
Abusive personalities tend to be extremely charming, but they will blame you for ‘making’ them angry or blame you for your reaction or threaten to abandon you if you complain about getting hurt by their bad behavior. If we grew up in abusive families, this may seem familiar and normal.
In the beginning, setting a boundary may be scary because we fear we may start a conflict or the person will reject us. Setting a boundary means telling someone how their behavior or words feel inappropriate and asking them to please stop. If setting a boundary makes the other person angry, then that is our confirmation that we are not in a healthy relationship. Healthy relationships resolve conflicts and give us closure, not conflict. Setting boundaries is an opportunity for problem solving or compromise. In healthy relationships we get closure, a sense of resolution, we feel respected, understood, validated. We can learn to recognize that an angry response or conflict arising from setting a boundary is your check point for the status of your relationship and to recognize it is not a healthy relationship. We may need to tell the person that we need to consider the possibility of ending the relationship. Sometimes we realize it is time to create a whole new support system to feel more genuine, enjoy the company of others and to feel empowered. We should feel comfortable, validated, understood. If we are not feeling comfortable in our social circle, and even experiencing anxiety, the anxiety may get worse if we don’t change something.
When we ignore or self-medicate our feelings with alcohol and drugs, our feelings typically get more uncomfortable, screaming at us to pay attention and protect ourselves. A part of our mind is picking up subtle hints that something is wrong. Whether we recognize micro expressions, body language, or subtle threats in toxic relationships, or we are mistreated in other ways, the natural reaction is to feel uncomfortable. The uncomfortable feeling is an activation of our fight/flight response to threat. The chemicals released in fight/flight response is really chemicals to give us strength, so we have the strength to fight, run away, or freeze to seem invisible. Fight/flight over time feels like anxiety and depression. If untreated, we can be more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder. Experiencing several traumatic incidents can lead to feeling frozen, overwhelmed, panicky, have trouble sleeping and avoiding interacting with others.
In therapy, there is a prognosis of remitting panic in about 15 weeks of therapy. Left untreated, anxiety and panic symptoms can worsen. Clients sometimes enter therapy and often quickly drop out when they feel some relief, but often return with worse symptoms. It is important to complete therapy for optimal results.
Radmila Sasic is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in trauma, with training in substance abuse and domestic violence. For more information, visit claritynwi.com or call the clinic at (219) 595-0043 to make an appointment.
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