What Causes Social Anxiety in the Brain?
In March 2020, across the globe we experienced a massive change to life when social restrictions came into force. Some of us thrived in this less hectic environment. Others experienced a deep loss of physical connection with loved ones. The entire experience felt paradoxical in many ways. Hugging and socialising is beneficial for immunity, yet world leaders instructed us to stop it to help us remain healthy.
For many the year caused fear, dread and worry as companies collapsed. People lost jobs, finances became a challenge and support felt distant. Most of us have survived and got through it but some people have thrived. Those that have noticed they feel happier with more time at home. Less rushing around, less meeting the expectations of others and more time alone now face a different struggle as they try to come to terms with “going back to normal”.
If you have experienced a lifetime of trying to manage social anxiety you might have felt deep relief when they announced the restrictions. No more needing to find excuses, no more letting people down, no more weeks of worry before an event. No more panic about leaving the house. Now, as you feel the anxiety rising as restrictions begin to lift you might wish to consider exploring and managing this anxiety differently. In a way that leaves you feeling like you can breathe.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
The main feature of social anxiety disorder is a fear or anxiety of social situations in which you feel exposed to the scrutiny of other people. Because of this you feel a fear of showing anxiety and negative judgement. This fear is persistent and out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the situation. The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders state that onset in adulthood is rare. But may occur after a stressful or humiliating event or after life changing events that require new social roles. In the United States 75% of individuals develop social anxiety disorder between eight and fifteen years of age but the cause of social anxiety is personal and individual.
The Brain and Social Anxiety
Your brain is made up of cells and neurons. The cells protect, support and assist the neurons, which using energetic energy make everything happen. In basic terms cells have a membrane that keeps the inside and outside of the cell separate. They have a cellular medium, which is where they live. And an interstitial fluid which is the specific fluid that surrounds and supports cells. The interstitial fluid, kept out of the cell by the cell membrane, contains chemicals and positively charged atoms and molecules known as ions. There is therefore a higher level of positive charge on the outside of the cell than the inside which creates a voltage at the cell’s surface.
Neurons, unlike other cells, have the special ability to change this electrical activity. With special “gates” the membrane of neurons can let in the positive ions. So, the cell becomes more positive inside than outside. The purpose of this is to create ripples of energy that direct action so the brain can do what it does. Many of the molecules that make up the neurons are proteins, created by your genes (part of your DNA). If your DNA creates atypical proteins, it can create non typical behaviours in the neurons. If the faulty gene compromises the neurons involved in maintaining mental health you will more likely find yourself with compromised mental health.
In between the neurons are gaps known as synapses. Neurons do not have the ability to leapfrog messages across the synapses. So they utilise neurotransmitters which take the message from one neuron to another. The seven main neurotransmitters are
- GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid)
Like hormones, neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that regulate, control, and coordinate your body. Some chemicals work as neurotransmitters and hormones, problems can occur if these chemicals behave in an unexpected way. For example, if you have regular unpleasant, negative thoughts your brain will emit neurotransmitters into your bloodstream which will affect you physically – often negatively.
Social anxiety is not always a result of faulty genes or a chemical imbalance. Your brain reacts to threats to your life before they happen through anticipation and prediction using the lookout part of your brain. The threat detection system is so sensitive that we even experience raised activity in response to triangles – a result of a previous need to run at the sight of sharp teeth, claws, spiky plants etc. Your brain has another procedure in place to calculate the severity of the risk and switch the lookout into standby mode.
Typically, the lookout will be on standby ready to turn on rapidly and easily when necessary, not completely switched off so you continue as normal in the face of death, but also not switched-on full throttle permanently. If you have disordered anxiety this standby mode does not function efficiently. Your lookout stays on, continually looking for dangers and primed ready to react instantly.
Previous blog posts describe the role of the amygdala, so I will not repeat it here, it is important where anxiety is concerned. As a social species your brain evolved to make and maintain relationships through the approval of others. When you interact with others the reward pathway of your brain is activated. Contrasting to an activation of the part of the brain responsible for processing pain when you feel dismissed or rejected by others. As a result, humans generally have fears and anxieties about anything that could lead to embarrassment, rejection, or negative judgement.
So, social anxiety is a heightened worry that you will experience an activation of the part of the brain responsible for pain, through a negative social experience.
If you enjoyed this article you might like to read my blog post on Panicking about panic attacks here