Know the Enemy: Social Anxiety Disorder

Robert F Mullen, PhD

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“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid Málaga)   

The distinction between social anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a matter of severity; reference to one includes the other. The recovery tools and techniques provided are applicable to most emotional malfunctions including depression, substance abuse, panic disorder, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and issues of self-esteem and motivation. These malfunctions originate homogeneously, their trajectories differentiated by environment, experience, and the diversity of human thought and behavior. 

Know the Enemy: Social Anxiety Disorder

The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid,
but he who conquers that fear.
– Nelson Mandela

Social anxiety disorder is the most underrated, misunderstood, and misdiagnosed disorder. Nicknamed the neglected anxiety disorder, few experts understand SAD and even fewer know how to address it. Recovery is best conducted by someone who has experienced social anxiety disorder and knows how to deal with it. When we go to war, we are not led by a theoretician, but by a tactician who has experienced battle. And make no mistake about it, we are at war and social anxiety disorder is the enemy.

Know Your Enemy

To successfully engage this sinister adversary we must learn its tactics and the scope of its weaponry. From that, we devise our stratagem. That is the substance of recovery. This is a war for control over our emotional well-being and quality of life. 

As the world’s third-largest mental health care problem, SAD is culturally identifiable by our persistent fear of social interaction and performance situations. Our suspicions of criticism, ridicule, and rejection are so severe, we avoid the healthy life experiences that interconnect us to others and the world. It is not the fears that devastate our lives; it is the things we do to avoid them. We have far more to fear from our distorted perceptions than what we might encounter in the real world. Our imagination takes us to dark and lonely places. 

Automatic Negative Thoughts

Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are anxiety-provoking thoughts or emotions that occur in anticipation of or reaction to a situation. They are unpleasant expressions of our self-perspectives – predetermined assumptions of what will happen when we expose ourselves to our fears.
(“I am incompetent. “No one will talk to me.” “I’ll say something stupid.”)  . 

These cognitively distorted responses stem from an endless feedback loop of hopelessness, helplessness, undesirability, and worthlessness, leading to self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. 

We fear the unknown and unexplored. We obsess about upcoming events and how we will reveal our shortcomings. We experience anticipatory anxiety for weeks before a situation and anticipate the worst. We remember those events in high school when we were the last to be chosen. The times we felt shunned when we tried to interconnect. SAD sustains itself by focusing on the negative aspects of our life. 

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Defining Recovery

The definition of recovery is regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost. In neuroses such as anxiety, depression, and comorbidities, what has been stolen or lost is our emotional well-being and quality of life.


Chronic and debilitating, SAD attacks on all fronts, manifesting in mental confusion, emotional instability, physical dysfunction, and spiritual malaise. Emotionally, we are despondent and lonely. We are subject to unwarranted sweating, trembling, hyperventilation, nausea, and muscle spasms. Mentally, our thoughts are discordant and irrational. Spiritually, we define ourselves as inadequate and insignificant. Additionally, many of us endure depression and turn to substance abuse to blunt the pain of our condition.

The Here and Now

While we understand the relevance of past circumstances, the focus of recovery is on the present and the solution. In the case of David Z., his recollections of childhood physical and emotional abuse helped him understand and moderate his mistrust and intimacy. Recovery, for the most part, is a here-and-now endeavor. Understanding the past is not unhelpful, but it is not our priority. The past is immutable, the future definable by our actions in the present.

Trapped and Crippled

Do you feel trapped in a vicious circle, restricted from living a normal life: Do you feel alienated from your peers and isolate yourself from family and friends? Do you spurn new relationships in anticipation of rejection? Do you repeat the same mistakes over and over again?  

As one client sorrowfully confided, “Anxiety has crippled me, locked me in a cage and has become my master.”

Feeling anxious or apprehensive in certain situations is normal; most of us are nervous speaking in front of a group and anxious when visiting our dentist. The typical individual recognizes the normality of a situation and accords appropriate attention. The SAD person dreads it, dramatizes it, and obsesses about its perceptual ramifications. We make mountains out of molehills and spend our days in tortuous anticipation of projected negative outcomes. We guarantee our failure through SAD-fulfilling prophecies.

We intuitively know it is an irrational and maddening way to live. We have tried everything to circumvent our behavioral patterns, yet nothing seems to work. That is because SAD thrives on counterproductivity, a tactic that provokes the opposite of the desired effect.

Established recovery approaches fail because they are not designed to address this peculiarity. SAD is the ultimate enigma – an intractable condition difficult to comprehend. The purpose of recovery is to unravel the enigma and defeat the enemy. Know your enemy.

Do you feel like you are under a microscope, and everyone is judging or criticizing you? Do you worry you are making a poor impression on individuals who do not matter? Are you inordinately concerned about what you might do, how you look, and how you express yourself? 

We live with persistent anxiety and fear of social situations such as dating, interviewing for a position, and contributing to class. We anticipate others will deem us incompetent, stupid, or undesirable. Often, mere functionality in perfunctory situations – eating in front of others, riding a bus, using a public restroom – is unduly stressful. 

The fear that manifests in social situations seems so fierce, we feel it is uncontrollable, a conclusion that manifests in perceptions of weakness and helplessness. We avoid situations where there is the potential for mistakes; imperfection is intolerable. Constant negative self-evaluation disrupts our desire to pursue a goal, attend school, or form relationships.

SAD Symptoms, Fears, and Apprehensions

Social Interaction

Do you imagine you are the curiosity in the room – the scrutiny of everyone’s attention? Do you worry that people will notice you sweating or blushing? That your voice will tremble and become incoherent?

We are overly concerned that our fears and anxieties are glaringly obvious to everyone. The overriding fear of being found wanting manifests in our self-perspectives of incompetence and unattractiveness. We walk on eggshells, supremely conscious of our awkwardness, surrendering to the GAZE―the anxious state of mind that comes with the fear of being the center of attention.

We are reminded of that phrase from the Book of David: “You have been weighed on the scales and you have been found wanting. It is a self-perception difficult to reconcile when SAD is the scale upon which we are being weighed. 

Our social interactions are clumsy, small talk inelegant, and attempts at humor embarrassing. Our anticipation of repudiation motivates us to dismiss overtures to offset the possibility of rejection. SAD is repressive and intractable, imposing self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors. It establishes its authority through defeatist measures produced by cognitively distorted and maladaptive interpretations of reality.

Maladaptive Behavior

Maladaptive behavior is a term created by Aaron Beck, the pioneer of cognitive-behavioral therapy. A unique characteristic of SAD, maladaptive behaviors are manifestations of our symptoms. As a result of our negative core and immediate beliefs, our attitudes, rules, and assumptions are distorted, and we adapt negatively (maladapt) to positive situations. Attitudes refer to our emotions, convictions, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations that influence our behaviors. Our assumptions are what we believe to be true or real.

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are the exaggerated or irrational thought patterns involved in the perpetuation of anxiety and depression. They reinforce or justify our errant thoughts and poor behaviors. In essence, we twist reality to comport with our negative self-beliefs and image. We filter, personalize, blame, and catastrophize. There are thirteen cognitive distortions that are particularly germane to social anxiety.

Do you incessantly replay adverse events in your head? Do you constantly relive all the discomforting things that happened to you during the day? Do you avoid meeting people or going on dates because you anticipate disaster? Do you beat yourself up for all those lost opportunities? 

We circle the block endlessly before confronting a situation, then end up avoiding it entirely. We avoid recognition in the classroom, our hearts pounding, hands sweaty, hoping we will not be singled out. We lay awake at night, consumed by all the negative events of the day. 

We crave companionship but shun social situations for fear others will find us unattractive or stupid. We avoid speaking in public, expressing opinions, and fraternizing with peers.


Self-esteem is mindfulness of our value and significance to ourselves, society, and the world. It is honest and nonjudgmental mindfulness of our flaws as well as our assets. It can be further understood as a complex interrelationship between how we think about ourselves, how we think others perceive us, and how we process and present that information. Persons living with SAD have significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls. Our negative core and intermediate beliefs are directly implicated. Our symptomatic fears and anxieties aggravate this deficiency.

Negatively Valenced Emotions

We blame ourselves for our lack of social skills. We feel shame for our inadequacies. We guilt ourselves when we avoid getting close to someone, terrified of rejection. Negatively valanced is a psychological term used to characterize specific emotions that adversely affect our daily lives. Emotions like shame, guilt, and resentment negatively impact our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships. We know these feelings are irrational, we know we are not responsible for its onset, but our social anxiety compels us to self-loath and self-destruct. Then to top it off, we consistently beat ourselves up for these feelings that are the product of emotional dysfunction that is not of our doing.


We do not have to live like this. We do not have to be afraid to connect with others. We do not have to constantly agonize over how we will be perceived. We do not have to worry about criticism and ridicule from strangers. By deliberately and repetitively feeding our neural network with healthy information, we proactively transform our thoughts and behaviors from self-doubt and avoidance to self-assured expressions of our relevance and contributions.

We must stop beating ourselves up. We did not ask for our social anxiety disorder. We did not make it happen; it happened to us. We are, however, responsible for doing something about it. We are the captains of our ship. The onus of recovery is on us; no one else does it for us. It comes down to a simple choice. Are we happy with who we are now, or would we like to change for the better? Do we choose to be miserable or to be happy? It is cut and dried. The tools and techniques for recovery are ours for the taking. 

We are engaged in a war that is not easily won – a life-consuming series of battles. The process of proactive neuroplasticity is theoretically simple but challenging, due to the commitment and endurance required for the long-term, repetitive process. We do not don tennis shorts and advance to Wimbledon without decades of practice with rackets and balls. Philharmonics cater to pianists who have spent years at the keyboard.

Neural restructuring requires a calculated regimen of deliberate, repetitive, neural information that is not only tedious but also fails to deliver immediate tangible results, causing us to readily concede defeat and abandon hope in this era of instant gratification. However, once we initiate the process of recovery, utilizing the appropriate tools and techniques, progress is exponential. The rewards far outweigh the process.

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Committing to recovery is one of the hardest things you will
ever do. It takes enormous courage and the realization that
you are of value, consequential, and deserving of happiness.

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