Most Anxiety is Social Anxiety
Everyone feel anxious.
Not everyone feels anxious in the exact same settings and circumstances, but absolutely everyone can identify with those awful feelings of dread, unrest, worry, and panic in some way, shape, or form.
With the seemingly infinite number of specific anxieties that human beings could have in today’s world, social anxiety is one that a huge number of people describe themselves as experiencing. You probably know social anxiety as the quick heart rate and sweaty palms that go along with feeling out of place in social situations. People also describe it as fearful thoughts around judgment, rejection, exclusion, and being socially incompetent in interactions with others.
As a counsellor in Victoria BC, I have more conversations about anxiety than any other concern people bring in to therapy. Through these interesting and diverse conversations, I’ve come to notice a common theme: the anxiety that people consider to be more “generalized”, or even anxieties about specific worries like health or death, almost always relate back to relationships with other people too.
In this post I explain how and why most anxiety is, at the end of the day, social in nature, and how identifying that for yourself can help you feel more at ease in anxious moments.
The Purpose Behind Anxiety
Like most aspects of human experiences, anxiety is one of those things that everyone can identify with on some level, and which everyone experiences somewhat differently from person to person. So, while taking these differences into account, anxiety is typically described as the emotional response to anticipated adverse events, experiences, or outcomes.
As a responsive emotion, anxiety draws our attention to what could happen, in the interest of avoiding or mitigating negative experiences. In this way, even if we don’t often experience it as helpful, anxiety is primarily concerned with our safety.
Anxiety as a Social Phenomenon
If anxiety is mostly about anticipating negative experiences or outcomes in the interest of safety, why do so many people experience social anxiety? I mean, it’s not like rejection, exclusion, or judgment ever really hurt anyone, right?
The reality is, belonging does matter. Despite the age-old rhetoric that celebrates the “lone wolf” and staunch individualism, we are far more interdependent than independent.
Even if you think about it on a purely evolutionary/biological level, human beings have needed each other for survival since always. Of course, humans in the 21st century are different in some very distinct ways than our predecessors from ages past, but the importance of belonging is very much alive and well in our hearts and minds today.
Belonging and Social Anxiety
The importance of belonging is key to understanding why people experience social anxiety. While we (urban adults in particular) may not need the acceptance of the group in order to survive predatory animals or weather brutal storms, cultural constructs like dignity, esteem, value, and worth, carry significant weight in the social world. If you’re skeptical, just ask anyone who has thought about ending their life after struggling against bullying, abuse, or social exclusion/rejection. Belonging is life-affirming and alienation and oppression can kill.
Anxiety’s Social Link
We know that social anxiety is defined by fears and worries around belonging and acceptance. But how does this common social denominator relate to other forms of anxiety?
I’ll illustrate this with an example:
When I first met with Paul, a 30-year-old man who grew up in a small community in BC, he described himself as struggling with anxiety, with a particular focus on his health. He explained that he recently learned through a medical exam that there was a mass in his lung, and that he was understandably afraid it might be cancer. I asked questions to draw out more of a sense of the meaning behind his fear – what it would mean to him if he was struck with a potentially fatal illness. Through his responses to my questions, he explained that because of the hard life he’s lived, he’s kept close relations at arm’s length. As many people can relate to, he felt fearful about the prospect of being vulnerable and opening up about himself and his own struggles to people who really matter to him. While more superficially, his anxiety was about getting sick and dying, at the heart of the matter was a fear of losing the opportunity to cultivate closer, more intimate relationships with his family. This realization opened the door for him to take care of those relationships in more direct and tangible ways.
Through Paul’s example you can see how what sounded at first like a very personal and private worry was actually relational in nature at its core. It’s easy to see anxieties like Paul’s through the more common individualistic lens, but when we really start getting curious and putting anxiety in context, we can see that there is a crucial social aspect more often than not.
Why It’s Helpful Identifying the Social Side of Anxieties
As is clear in Paul’s example above, recognizing the social aspects of our anxieties gives us something concrete to work with. So often the assumption is that we need skills or tools to manage anxiety, when in fact action can be taken to address the anxiety-provoking situation at its core.
In Paul’s case, by recognizing that his anxiety was really based on the fear of losing the opportunity to get closer with the important people in his life, he was able to take the action necessary to address that concern.
I think it’s also worth noting that anxiety has a way of making it difficult to facilitate the process of coming to these realizations on our own. We can get so wrapped up in worry that we think in very circular ways, making it hard to move forward. This is where talking to a therapist can really help. Counselling for anxiety can not only help you identify and practice the skills and tools to ease anxiety in anxious moments, but also to see the tangible factors that could make all the difference if they were to be addressed.
Identifying the Social Side of Your Anxiety
Whether or not you work with a counsellor to understand the context around your own anxiety, having questions to explore and make sense of the social side of your anxiety can make a big difference.
You can use questions like these to do that work yourself:
- If your anxiety could speak for itself, what fears or worries would it express?
- What relationships in your life relate most closely to those fears or worries?
- What would it mean to you if those fears or worries were to come true? What regrets would you have?
- What fears or worries have made it hard to take action to resolve the anxiety?
- Are there particular social responses you fear you might receive?
- Who else does this issue matter to? What is their relationship to the situation?
- How does your anxiety relate to your relationship with them?
- If you knew you could do something that would make everything better, even if you’re afraid to do that thing right now, what would that be?
- What has made it hard to take that action up until now?
Addressing Anxiety Through the Broader Social Context
The problems we call “social anxiety” are quite obviously social in nature, but that doesn’t mean that other kinds of anxiety are not. The process of exploring and understanding the social context around your anxiety can open new doors to addressing issues on a more real and tangible level. In this way, addressing your anxiety through the broader social context is empowering and leads to more sustainable resolution across time.
Are there certain social relationships that you notice you feel more anxious about than others?
How do you take hard but important steps toward resolving social worries?