Is social anxiety contagious?

 In Group coaching

I’ve been thinking a lot about social anxiety in communities, social circles, work places, etc. It seems like it’s a hot discussion topic right now and that everyone ‘has it’. Me saying that is not to try and minimize the impact it has on people, because social anxiety is a real and legitimate thing with life impacting effects, as this post will go on to explain. My interest comes from the perspective of doing conflict work and wondering: what is the correlation between having social anxiety and causing social anxiety in others.

Is social anxiety contagious?

Have you ever walked into a room and immediately felt unwelcome? What did that room’s environment feel like? How did the people in that room behave? How did your body respond, and as a result, how did you react?

Now, did you ever walk into a room and feel welcomed? What did that room’s environment feel like? How did the people in that room behave? How did your body respond, and as a result, how did you react?

Social connection for humans is vital to our physical and psychological health, and is part of what supports our physiological and emotional regulation. The opposite of social connection is loneliness and with that comes a whole lot of feelings that mess up that equilibrium. According to the book ‘Loneliness’ by John T Cacioppo & William Patrick, “to feel fully connected (present) with others, there must be an absence of social pain and threat.” Anxiety is a symptom of threat. Social anxiety is defined as “ intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation”. It can show up in our bodies as a rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, trouble breathing, dissociation, upset stomach/digestion issues, sweating, shaking, and more.

Again: Social anxiety is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.

“Rejection, especially by a group, lowers our self esteem,” writes Cacioppo. And no doubt it brings up all kinds of bad feelings including anxiety. When we are anxious and in a state of fear, our body automatically becomes more sensitive and aware of social cues and group dynamics, but because we are in a fear state, our readings might not be entirely accurate. “Self protective states distort our perceptions”, he writes. We start over reading into cues that aren’t always there or that are not being directed at us. We see threat where in fact there may not be any.

For some with severe social anxiety, they may feel this way no matter what social situation they enter, but for many, social anxiety and the social situation/people involved affects the level of anxiety they experience. For some, it might be at work with co-workers or employers; for others, social situations involving community groups/members. And my guess here is that those environments are triggering social anxiety because of the ‘environment’, ‘vibe’ or overall ‘culture’ they promote.

To me the absence of threat might look like an environment that is welcoming, accepting and nurturing. Because when people feel safe and secure they feel less anxious. The opposite of this might look like an environment that is judgemental, overly competitive/critical, and that encourages/promotes bullying.

An absence of social pain might look like working to minimize (or eradicate) oppression, violence, and isolation from our social spaces. These forms of harm can impact entire groups and communities abilities to trust others, be able to form healthy relationships, and seek out connection. And so it is probably not surprising then, when I tell you that social anxiety and PTSD/C-PTSD (childhood/post traumatic stress disorder) commonly occur together. Many workplaces and community spaces perpetuate oppressive behaviours that replicate traumatic conditions for marginalized/already traumatized people (sexual harassment, discriminatory hiring practices, unequal pay, racism, gender discrimination, etc).

One of the effects of trauma on the brain is it changes the way we experience safety and threat. We may begin to see all humans as potential threats or at least humans that look similar to those who have harmed us in the past. Our ability to parse out actual threat from perceived threat or no threat decreases dramatically. If we see all other people as a potential threats, including people from our own workplace or community, then we are more likely to treat them in ways that inhibit social connection.

It is the self fulfilling prophecy of social anxiety. Continued isolation due to social threat or pain creates conditions for loneliness.

Behaviours that can trigger or worsen someone’s social anxiety according to my experience in conflict work:
-No greeting or welcome into a space
-No acknowledgement of one’s presence in a space
-Crowds/people staring at you but providing no acknowledgement of welcome
-Open hostility (inappropriate/hurtful comments, looks of hostility, being laughed at, whispering, etc)
-Exclusion from conversation or group activity
-Being ignored, minimized, dehumanized, etc

Ooof, even as I write this out I feel a pang in my chest because even the thought or memory of experiencing these behaviours is painful.

At the same time, people with social anxiety might be less likely to:
-Greet people when they enter a space
-Acknowledge others presence in a space
-Look at others/make eye contact
-Engage someone in conversation
-Make the first move of inviting someone to an activity

So here is where the cycle begins to become contagious. Since humans look to one another for cues and are affected by those perceptions, it can be very possible for one person to develop symptoms of anxiety from witnessing the manifestation of someone else’s. This can cause cycles of emotional disconnection. And long term emotional disconnection makes us vulnerable to chronic anxiety and depression.

Cacioppo says that our natural limbic brain inclinations include, loyalty, concern and affection. So can demonstrating more of those behaviours towards one another lessen an entire group’s anxiety? Can it have the ability to change the overall environment of a space? I think so. Does this mean we all have to be friends and get along perfectly. No, I don’t think so. But I think if we all share values such as inclusion, accountability, or mutual respect then I believe we can still find ways to demonstrate those limbic brain inclinations to others, if at least because we know that the more we are in a fear state, the harder it is to truly align with our values.

Next time you’re feeling socially anxious, look around and wonder if others are likely feeling the same way. Common defense mechanisms to social anxiety include: making oneself small (no eye contact, cowering, not talking to anyone), making oneself big (posturing, ignoring, taking up space), or making oneself invisible (removing oneself from the space altogether). If it feels doable, try extending a welcome or some form of acknowledgement and see if the energy in yourself or between you and the other person(s) shift. If you are someone in a leadership position, modelling social anxiety reducing behaviour can drastically change the dynamics and wellbeing of a group. I personally know that for myself, I notice a big shift in my personal energy depending on how the first few minutes of interaction in a space occur. However, remember that along with those anxiety reducing behaviours, is the requirement of minimizing/eradicating social threat and pain in the overall culture, which is a long term commitment.

*Note: I am not a doctor or therapist and these points or suggestions will not work or be possible for everybody due to many factors such as health, trauma, abilities, etc. If extending yourself in the ways suggested doesn’t feel doable or feels like it would be pushing yourself outside of safety, then I encourage you to not force yourself and try taking things in smaller steps or consulting a mental health professional.

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