Social Anxiety Disorder: A Life Trajectory of Fear

Robert F Mullen, PhD

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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. 

Social Anxiety Disorder: A Life Trajectory of Fear

Peer-reviewed and approved for publication, Clio’s Psyche, 2023.

Founded in 1994, Clio’s Psyche is a scholarly journal published by the Psychohistory Forum, holding regular scholarly meetings in Manhattan and at international conventions. Clio’s Psyche is unique in that it prefers experiential testimony over extensive citation.

Abstract: The author examines the parallel of social anxiety disorder to fear and the remarkable contrast between individuals in recovery to those who resist healing due to symptomatic defeatism.

Keywords: anxiety, cognitive distortions, fear, interconnectivity, neuroplasticity, recovery, resistance, social-anxiety-disorder

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is culturally identifiable by the persistent fear and avoidance of social interaction and performance situations, which causes us to miss the life experiences that connect us with the world.  To paraphrase Sun Tzu, if we know the enemy and our capacity to defeat it, then we need not fear it.  SAD sustains itself by provoking fear and anxiety. In recovery, we acquaint ourselves with the symptoms and characteristics of the condition as well as their impact on our emotional well-being and quality of life. 

Notwithstanding, persons living with SAD are disproportionately resistant to recovery.  We go to enormous lengths to remain oblivious to its destructive capabilities as if, by ignoring them, they don’t exist or will somehow go away.  Our justifications for resistance are numerous and a discussion for another time.  This writing contrasts the emotional functionality of persons resigned to SAD with those who choose recovery.  The personal thoughts quoted throughout are from clients and workshop graduates.

Like all persons living with SAD, I entered my adolescence terrified of my shadow and not knowing why.  Nicknamed the “neglected anxiety disorder,” SAD is ostensibly the most underrated, misunderstood, and misdiagnosed psychological affliction.  Few therapists understand it and even fewer know how to effectively address it.  SAD is routinely misdiagnosed.  Professionals cite the mental health community’s difficulty distinguishing its symptoms and identifying specific etiological risk factors.  Over the years, I was diagnosed with various forms of depression and bipolar disorder.  Delinquent, insubordinate, and intolerable were other personal epithets.  Anxiety was never a consideration. 

One has to experience SAD to recognize its severity.  My struggles countering my life-consistent negative self-beliefs provide a unique understanding of how SAD manipulates and provokes emotional self-annihilation.  Recovery is an exponential process of transformationIt may not be curable, but its symptoms can be dramatically moderated.  Remission is generally defined as a year in recovery utilizing the available tools and techniques. 

Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal facet of life. The typical individual accords its appropriate deference.  Those of us living with SAD personalize our anxiety, dramatize it, and obsess about its negative implications.  We create mountains out of molehills, spending our days in tortuous anticipation of our projected negative outcomes.  We encourage our submission through self-fulfilling prophecy.

We live with persistent anxiety and fear of social situations such as dating or interviewing for a job.  Often, mere functionality in perfunctory situations -eating in front of others, riding a bus, using a public restroom – is unduly stressful.  We seek invisibility, praying we will not be asked to participate.  As Matty S. explained, “I spent high school trying to hide in every dark corner with a book in my face. I never once ate lunch in four years, and never once went to the bathroom in four years at my high school, for fear of having to interact with people.”

Four words define our self-image:  helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless.  The first three were coined by Aaron Beck, the pioneer of cognitive-behavioral therapy.  The overriding sense of undesirability evolved from my discussions with hundreds of SAD individuals.  Debilitating and chronic, SAD attacks on all fronts, manifesting in mental confusion, emotional instability, physical dysfunction, and spiritual malaise.  Emotionally, we are depressed and lonely.  In social situations, we are subject to unwarranted sweating, trembling, hyperventilation, nausea, and muscle spasms.  Mentally, our thoughts are distorted and irrational.  Spiritually, we define ourselves as inadequate and insignificant.  Most of us suffer from depression and gamble with substance abuse to blunt the discomfort of our condition.

The overriding fear of being found wanting manifests in our self-perspectives of inferiority and unattractiveness.  We are unduly concerned we will say something that will reveal our shortcomings.  We walk on eggshells, supremely conscious of our awkwardness, surrendering to the GAZE – the anxious state of mind that comes with the perception we are the center of attention.  We anguish over things for weeks before they happen and negatively predict the outcomes. 

Our social interactions are often clumsy, small talk inelegant, and attempts at humor embarrassing.  Our anticipation of repudiation motivates us to dismiss overtures to offset any possibility of rejection.  SAD is repressive and intractable, imposing self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.  It establishes its authority through defeatist measures produced by distorted and unsound interpretations of reality.  “Anxiety has crippled me, locked me in a cage and has become my master.” – Jeremy G.

We fear the unknown and unexplored.  We crave companionship but shun intimacy, expecting to be deemed unlikeable.  It is not the fear that destroys our lives, it’s the things we do to avoid it.  At the peak of my social anxiety, I would circle the block repeatedly before a social event to bolster my courage.  More often than not, I ended up in the bar rather than the event.  Not only did I anticipate letting myself down, but I guaranteed it through my avoidance. 

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Cumulative evidence that childhood disturbance is a primary causal factor in emotional instability has been well-established.  The word ‘disturbance’ generates images of overt abuse. However, any number of things define it.  Parents may have been controlling or did not provide emotional validation.  Perhaps we were subject to gender bullying or a broken home.  Disturbance can be intentional or accidental, real or imagined – the suggestibility of the pre-adolescent is legendary.  A toddler who finds their parental quality time interrupted by a phone call can form a core belief of abandonment.  SAD senses the vulnerability and onsets at adolescence, often lingering in our system for years before asserting itself. 

It is essential to recognize our malfunction is not our fault nor the result of aberrant behavior.  We did not make it happen; it happened to us.  We are not accountable for the hand we have been dealt.  We are, however, responsible for how we play the cards.  The onus of recovery remains with us.  Experts supply the tools, but we must take them out of the shed and out them to work. 

Undoubtedly, this sociological model conflicts with moral models that claim emotional malfunction is onset controllable, and we are to blame for our symptoms (or that it is God’s punishment for sin).

Social connectedness is a central psychological requirement for emotional well-being.  In unambiguous terms, the desire for love is at the heart of social anxiety disorder but our social avoidance and fear of intimacy disenables our ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships.  We feel trapped in a vicious circle, restricted from living a normal life, alienated from our peers, and isolated from our families.  Bryce S. writes: “I still find myself very scared to open up, be honest, be intimate, and trust people while also figuring out how I feel about things and reacting appropriately.  I guess I realized I’m starved for genuine connections.” 

We store information consistent with our negative beliefs.  Even when irrational or inaccurate, it defines how we see ourselves in the world.  By declining to question these beliefs, we sustain a cognitive bias that compels us to misinterpret information.  This is further compounded by humankind’s inherent negativity bias.  Even when we know our fears and apprehensions are irrational, their emotional impact is so great, our attitudes, rules, and assumptions run roughshod over any healthy, rational response. 

SAD in Recovery

We exponentially erode SAD’s power by compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry.  Dissociation is the first order of business in recovery.  We learn to define ourselves not by our malfunction, but by our character strengths, virtues, and achievements.  If we break our leg, we do not become the injured limb; we are someone with a broken leg.  The same logic applies to our condition. 

We counter our fears and anxieties through rational responses, recognizing that our learned helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness are SAD-induced distortions of reality.  They are defense mechanisms – irrational thought patterns purposed to validate our negative self-beliefs.  Substance abuse, denial, projection, regression, and cognitive distortions twist our thinking and paint an inaccurate picture of ourselves and the world around us

Neuroplasticity is evidence of our brain’s constant adaptation to learning.  Scientists refer to the process as structural remodeling of the brain.  It’s what makes learning and registering new experiences possible.  All information notifies our neural network to realign, generating a correlated change in behavior and perspective. 

What is significant is our ability to dramatically accelerate learning by consciously compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry.  The deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information (DRNI) empowers us to proactively transform our thoughts and behaviors, creating healthy new mindsets, skills, and abilities.  Proactive neuroplasticity is not psychology, but science.  They share responsibility for recovery.

Know yourself and know the enemy.  Discovering I was not an inherently evil person – that social anxiety disorder was the force behind my behavior -caused me to reevaluate my value and significance.  The realization that proactive neuroplasticity gave me control of my emotional well-being was life changing.  Passing this information on to others living with emotional malfunction gave me a sense of purpose. 

As the saying goes, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We do not seek power in recovery, but empowerment.  There is a huge distinction.  Empowerment is becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling our life and claiming our rights as human beings.  Recovery is regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.  Social anxiety disorder is the invading force that has stolen our autonomy, our hopes, and our self-esteem.  Reclaiming our inherent universal rights demands a comprehensive strategy. 

To paraphrase the strategic offensive principle of war, the best defense against emotional malfunction is a good offense.  Military strategists develop a structured plan of action to outmaneuver the opponent.  They then identify the actions or measurable steps needed to achieve the goal.  A definitive strategy also identifies what resources are needed to implement the tactics.  That is what we must achieve in recovery.  We are the strategists, our recovery program our weapons research facility.

A coalescence of science and east-west psychologies is essential to capture the diversity of human thought and experience.  Science gives us proactive neuroplasticity; cognitive-behavioral modification and positive psychology’s optimal functioning are Western-oriented, and Eastern practices provide the therapeutic benefits of Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology) and the overarching truths of ethical behavior.  Also crucial to recovery are approaches that focus on the regeneration of our self-esteem.

The primary goal of recovery from social anxiety is the moderation of our irrational fears and anxieties. This is best achieved through a three-pronged approach: to (1) replace or overwhelm our negative thoughts and behaviors with healthy, productive ones, (2) produce rapid, neurological stimulation to change the polarity of our neural network, and (3) regenerate our self-esteem. These comprise our overall strategy.

Cognitive and behavioral mechanisms replace or overwhelm our life-consistent negative thoughts and behaviors with healthy ones.  DRNI produces rapid, concentrated, neurological stimulation to change the polarity of our neural network.  Recognizing and emphasizing our strengths, virtues, and accomplishments regenerate our self-esteem. 

In recovery, we identify the situations that provoke our fear(s) and unmask the corresponding automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that reinforce or justify them.  Through personal interrogation and analysis, we generate rational responses while simultaneously reconstructing our neural circuits.

A one-size-fits-all recovery strategy cannot sufficiently address our individual complexity.  We are better served by integrating multiple traditional and non-traditional approaches, developed through client trust, cultural assimilation, and therapeutic innovation.  Our environment, heritage, conflicts, and associations reflect our wants, choices, and aspirations.  If they are not given consideration, then we are not valued.  Recovery builds upon our assets.  We do not triumph through incompetence and weakness but with practiced skill and careful planning. 

The process of recovery is theoretically simple but challenging due to the commitment and endurance required for the long-term, repetitive process.  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. 

Once we start down the path, however, our capacity for transformation grows exponentially.  All information notifies our neural network to realign, generating a constant and correlated change in behavior and perspective.  A comprehensive recovery program provides the tools and techniques.  The decision to use utilize them is on us. 

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