Everybody gets socially anxious. For some, it is crippling, confining them to their homes. It is pathological, warrants the term ‘disorder’ and the medical treatment that goes with such diagnosis. To others, it is a minor annoyance: the non-pathological dose of fear before speaking to a large audience. For me, social anxiety manifested in an inability to experience romantic love.
The cruel irony of social anxiety is; that which we fear is the very thing we crave. Friendships, relationships, the need to love and be loved: these are all contingent upon the very social interactions that we are afraid of making. I would wager that most arachnophobics do not harbour dreams of becoming leading spider experts.
I was petrified of meeting new people, but especially those of the so-called ‘fairer sex’. Sustaining eye contact during conversations with women felt like a duel with Medusa. I would often look around, or stare downwards at the ground. In the rare instances I did hold eye contact, this was a concerted, conscious process; soon followed by a meta-awareness of this process.
“Oh God, I’m staring. Quick, look somewhere else.”
All the while, her words would fly by my head, completely unregistered. I’m so anxious about what she is thinking about me and what I should say, that I’m not really listening to her.
My turn to speak comes, but I can’t seem to utter any coherent sentence. Mumbled phrases are drowned out by the incessantly accelerating beats of my heart coupled with the torrent of sweat that trickles from my forehead. This is a classic fear response.
The reasons for this fear are difficult to tease out. Teasing from teenage girls, a deeply engrained cultural embarrassment of sexuality, or an all-male secondary school education? These environmental factors may have all contributed. Even before this, there may have been a pre-existing genetic disposition to anxiety. My mother is anxious. Her mother was anxious. My fear of women was probably the product of both nature and nurture.
Nevertheless, none of these factors is insurmountable. People have and will continue to break free from the shackles of social anxiety. Alas, I was unaware of this until my mid 20s.
23 years old came; I had never kissed a girl or even held a girl’s hand. 24 soon followed. No change. Then I hit 25. The loneliness became unbearable; was I to remain indefinitely playing this waiting game, or was I to claw myself out of this solitary mire?
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”
So goes the oft-repeated phrase of Neale Donald Walsch. I needed to push myself into new social situations if I ever were to attain the thing that I both desired and feared. Rather than avoid fear, I needed to face it head on; and, this time, maintain eye contact with it.
Indeed, this is the rationale behind in vivo exposure therapy, whereby social phobics are treated by gradually exposing themselves to increasingly feared social situations. Such graded exposure therapy has its theoretical origins in conditioning experiments.
In 1920, psychologists Watson and Rayner performed a conditioning experiment on a young child known as ‘Little Albert.’ They presented the child with a white rat, and he readily played with and handled the rat. He wasn’t scared. But then the experimenters deliberately paired a loud bang every time Little Albert tried to touch the rat. The loud bang, understandably, made Little Albert very scared. He cried, he shrieked, he tried to move away.
Then Watson and Rayner presented the white rat without the loud noise. Poor Albert started to cry again. He had conditioned the fear response to the sight of the rat. And it wasn’t just the rat, Albert became fearful of items similar to the rat: a rabbit, a seal-skin coat and even a Santa Claus beard.
Yet, unfortunately for Little Albert (and not to mention illegally and unethically by modern standards), the psychologists did not perform a crucial concluding part of the experiment. If they had continued to show Albert the rat, but without the loud bang, then Albert would have gradually become less fearful of the rat. This process is known as extinction.
Extinction is a major component of exposure therapy. Patients are taught to confront and enter a social situation and be aware of their fear response. Importantly, with the help of other relaxation strategies, they are taught to remain in the feared situation until the fear response subsides. Once they become accustomed and less fearful of mild situations, they may move onto scarier social situations.
When we are scared, several linked parts of the brain are active. One of these structures is an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala. Certain neurons in the amygdala become very active when someone is immersed in a fear-inducing situation.
Studies of mice, however, show that, after exposure therapy, these neurons are less active. Exposure therapy causes remodelling of the amygdala so that the neurons that were previously activated in a fear-inducing situation becoming inhibited and fire more weakly.
If gradual exposure to fearful situations worked for rats, might it work for me?
With nothing to lose, apart from the weight of my romantic inexperience, I embarked upon a journey of self-prescribed exposure therapy. Firstly, like some spiritual cartographer, I had to chart the boundaries of my current comfort zone.
I had some friends, who were predominantly male, but I was still nervous meeting new people of either sex. Living in a megacity such as London, I was surrounded by millions of new people. The potential elixir to my social anxiety was all around me.
My first step was to force myself to go up to strangers (both male and female) on the street and ask perfectly innocuous and banal questions:
“Excuse me, sorry to trouble you. Do you have the time?”
Of course, I already knew the correct time, but temporal accuracy was not the goal of this exercise. The aim was to get used to talking to strangers; to understand that my fear would not kill me and would not prevent me from receiving an answer to my banal questions.
The next step was to sustain more significant conversations with female colleagues. During these conversations, I also worked on eye contact, again incrementally upping the time. 3 seconds. Then 5 seconds. Then 10 seconds.
Was I staring awkwardly at these bemused colleagues during the time? Did they think I was a weirdo? Probably. But it didn’t matter. Two strategies helped with this. Firstly, I found a good way to maintain conversations was to ask people questions about themselves. Secondly, I tried to focus my attention outwards and actually listen to these conversers, rather than inwardly introspect about my own feelings and thoughts.
Perhaps most difficult was the process of desensitising myself to touch. I used to feel extremely uncomfortable if other people touched me (non-maliciously), so the thought of having to initiate any, albeit platonic, physical contact with another person was daunting.
Again, I operated in small steps. If someone looked as if they were having a bad day at work, I would sympathetically pat their shoulder and ask them about their day. A small pat on the shoulder, trivial to most other people, felt like the destruction of the Berlin Wall to me.
It was a long and difficult process, but the results started to snowball. Situations that would have once paralysed me with fear now seemed trifling. I eventually joined online dating sites and Meetup groups, honing my social skills each time and extinguishing my fear little by little.
Fast-forward two years to the happy denouement: I had met my very first girlfriend and had my first taste of requited, romantic love. I was aged 27 at the time.
To love another person and be loved in return is a potent thing in on its own; yet the potency was amplified by the arduous journey that preceded it. Through my own toiling, and admittedly some luck, I had gradually chipped away at the social anxiety that kept me incarcerated. Although that particular relationship didn’t last, I am now confident I may forge similarly fulfilling relationships in my future life.
Social anxiety may hamper people from living fulfilled lives. It may prevent them from finding a partner, make them reluctant to partake in group activities, or scare someone away from their dream career. Yet, with the correct help, it may be surmountable and, as the late Maya Angelou once said:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1.
Trouche, S., Sasaki, J. M., Tu, T., & Reijmers, L. G. (2013). Fear extinction causes target-specific remodeling of perisomatic inhibitory synapses. Neuron, 80(4), 1054-1065.