When Dangers are Social

Social Anxiety Help

Larry Cohen, LICSW

When Dangers are Social

It is easy to see how the anxiety response could be very helpful when facing a physical danger…being attacked, killed or even eaten.

But the anxiety response evolved long before the first party…or staff meeting…or personal disagreement. Here, the dangers are social, not physical. Social anxiety is based on the fear of social danger: judgment, rejection and embarrassment.

The very anxiety mechanism that is meant to protect us from physical danger may be quite unhelpful when the dangers are purely social. In fact, as you probably know all too well, a moderate or strong anxiety response could easily increase the likelihood of social danger occurring.

Believe it or not, a mild anxiety response is actually somewhat helpful in the face of social danger. Mild social anxiety focuses our attention, increases our drive, heightens our sensitivity to others, and gives us a healthy dose of humility. People with no social anxiety at all often come across as brash, arrogant, obnoxious and domineering. Our goal is not to eliminate anxiety altogether, but to reduce it so that it becomes a help, not a handicap.

When dangers are social, moderate and strong anxiety responses becomes our handicap, not our protection. All that extra strength and energy produced by the fight or flight response does us little good when interacting socially, or speaking in front of groups, or asserting ourselves. If we don’t expend that energy by fighting or fleeing–seldom an appropriate course of action in social settings!–then we may be left feeling physically tense, hot, sweaty, jittery, agitated and generally uncomfortable.

This is especially a problem for the many socially anxious people who suffer from so-called secondary anxiety: anxiety about anxiety. In other words, many of us get caught in a vicious cycle in which we notice or anticipate an anxiety symptom (eg. blushing, sweating, jitteriness, or nervous speech), and then we fear that others will notice that symptom and judge us as weak or weird. This fear of judgment then increases our anxiety symptoms, which in turn increases the fear that others will see these symptoms and judge us.

The flight response is quite common with social anxiety, usually in the form of avoidance and other safety behaviors. We often avoid places, activities and interactions where we anticipate social danger: judgment, rejection and embarrassment. When we are in the face of social danger, we may avoid eye contact and withdraw from active communication in order to keep people–and hopefully their judgment–at a distance. We often avoid initiating or joining conversations, speaking about ourselves, elaborating, telling stories, asserting ourselves, or showing interest in someone so as to avoid the risk of disapproval. We may speak briefly, quickly, softly or not at all lest we say something that will be judged. Instead of focusing mindfully on the conversation in the moment, we are often in our heads: trying to script what to say next, criticizing what we just said or how we think we are appearing, trying to control our anxiety symptoms, and/or trying to mind-read what others are thinking of us.

While the flight response may help us survive a physical attack, avoidance and other safety behaviors only make things worse for us socially. These patterns inhibit our ability to enjoy social interactions, and prevent us from having flowing conversations in which we connect well with people. These patterns also tend to keep people at a distance, which may lead them to judge us (as uninterested, uninteresting, unfriendly or aloof)…the very thing we were afraid of in the first place! Finally, avoidance and other safety behaviors prevent us from learning that people will usually react well to us, that it’s not so awful if they don’t, and that we can cope well with it if this occurs.

In this way, we often engage in an unintended vicious cycle and self-fullfilling prophecy: we avoid and engage in other safety behaviors to prevent anxiety and judgment. But avoidance and other safety behaviors tend to backfire, often resulting in greater anxiety and judgment. We may not realize this is happening because we sometimes experience an initial reduction in anxiety when we avoid. But avoidance comes back to haunt us, as it reinforces our distressing hot thoughts which tends to increase our anxiety for the next time. In addition, a pattern of avoidance and other safety behaviors prevents us from testing and overcoming our hot thoughts that led to the avoidance and other safety behaviors in the first place!

Nor is the freeze response helpful when the danger is social. Freezing, remember, involves focusing on the potential danger…in this case, the possibility that others will not think or react well toward us, or that we will embarrass ourselves or otherwise create a bad impression.
But while we are so focused on what we fear others may be thinking of us, or focused on criticizing our own performance and appearance, then we are not focusing mindfully on the conversation or activity that we are involved in. It’s awfully hard to carry out a good conversation, or speak well in front of a group, if we’re not focused on the conversations or the speech…but are instead worrying about how we are coming across!

There’s a terrible paradox in social anxiety: the more we are worried about our “performance” (ie. how well we are speaking, behaving or appearing to others), the more likely our performance will get worse. This is not because we are inadequate or deficient as people. It is because we are so concerned about coming across as inadequate or deficient. This concern then triggers the anxiety response which leads to symptoms and behaviors that adversely effect our “performance.” This, in turn, makes it hard for us to connect well with people, and falsely reinforces our original core belief that we are inadequate or deficient.

Of course, there is a positive paradox in reverse: the less preoccupied we are about how we are coming across to others, the greater the likelihood that we will come across well and feel more comfortable. This concept is called the paradox of acceptance: learning to accept our anxiety and our limitations helps up become less anxious and to perform better, because we are then better able to be mindfully focused in the moment, and to drop patterns of avoidance and other safety behaviors.

The Purpose of Anxiety

Perception is the Starting Point

Fight, Flight or Freeze

When Dangers are Social

Social Anxiety Does Not Equal Introversion

Social Anxiety Triggers

Biology, Social Anxiety and Medication

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Social Anxiety


If you have any questions or comments, please email Larry Cohen, LICSW, with offices in Washington, DC.

Social Anxiety Help is a founding regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC): nationalsocialanxietycenter.com