Social Anxiety: a Serious Disorder Requires a Serious Solution

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For the poem that inspired this mini series of posts on social anxiety click here. If you want some basic information on social anxiety for some context click here.

This post will be about my thoughts on social anxiety based on research, experience, and conversations with others. 

Everyone gets nervous in social situations every once in a while. Perhaps at a big business convention or at a dance for all the incoming freshmen.

But imagine waking up in your dorm room with a sinking feeling because you’re already nervous about eating breakfast in front of people in the dining common. So you eat in your room. Then you head to your first class with your head down to avoid eye contact with people. You sit in class and begin working. But you can’t concentrate because you feel like everyone is watching you. Like a spotlight is on you. And everyone is scrutinizing your every move. And no matter how many times people try to tell you that you’re just an extra on stage – the same as everyone else – you can’t shake the feeling. Your next class is across campus. There will be so many people you will have to walk through. The bell rings. You exhale, put your head down, and walk. Your mind is already tired, and you’ve only made it through first period.

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Maybe you’re skeptical about this illustration. Perhaps you’re thinking, why can’t people just get over themselves? No one cares what they do, no one is watching. And, besides, everyone gets nervous sometimes. Well, here’s my response: I think that this is one of the disorders that doesn’t seem serious unless you have it. Psychologists have determined that there is a marked difference between having social anxiety and having a social anxiety disorder. And note that this is listed as a disorder. And it does affect its victims.

I have talked at length with a friend who has social anxiety. She often seems weary because, let’s face it, our society is a very social society. And I think that’s good. We are meant to be with people. Long ago, when we figured out how agriculture works, we all gathered together in cities. We knew that we could help each other if we came together.

But, just take a moment and think about how many activities take place under the scrutiny of the public eye each day. Walking, talking, eating, drinking, answering a question in class, going to the mall with friends, even just studying in a room with other people. While most of these activities seem commonplace to you, to 19.2 million people in America, many or all of these activities cause them great distress. Everyday. Now that’s exhausting.

And, unfortunately, there is no cure all. Telling someone to “Stop being shy” or to “Stop being so nervous” is not going to do anything. It’s like yelling “Grow legs!” to a rock. Nothing is going to happen. Psychologists can prescribe medicine but, as with most mental disorders, this can only do so much.

Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 10.34.52 PMSo, if you have a friend or family member who suffers from social anxiety, try to place yourself in their shoes. Remember that, especially in college, you are around other people all the time always. And, for some people, this type of environment sucks away their energy. Note: Of course, this can be said of many different issues. Everyone you see on the sidewalk is currently going through some type of trial, be it small or big, short-term or long-term. So be nice and considerate to everyone in general. 

And, if you suffer from social anxiety, try to place yourself in other people’s shoes. First, remember that they have their own issues that they are dealing with. That boy who sits next to you in class probably isn’t scrutinizing your work ethics. He’s too busy trying to pass the class so he doesn’t get yelled at again by his parents who are never proud of him. The girls who were laughing behind you on the sidewalk probably weren’t making fun of your clothes. They were simply reminiscing about their weekend activities. And your classmates probably don’t criticize your eating habits behind your back. They themselves are struggling with eating too much or too little at times.

Second, realize that if you never talk to people, people will probably never talk to you. If you always have your head down and your phone out, people will probably not talk to you. And if you never say yes to an invitation to go somewhere, you will probably not get invited anywhere. I know it’s hard to be social – that’s why we’re talking about social anxiety – but put yourself in their shoes. They probably aren’t rude people for not talking to someone who doesn’t talk back or for not inviting someone who never comes. They themselves dislike being rejected by you – no matter the reason why – just as much as you hate being rejected by others. Don’t give yourself a free pass. You can hurt others even whilst you yourself are hurting.

Is there any solution?

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Now, I know it’s hard to change your thinking patterns. But, I think that the best cure may simply be to forget about yourself. Completely. For a whole day instead of thinking about what others are thinking about you, try to think about what others are thinking about themselves. Is that boy in your class struggling with math? Offer to help him in study hall. Is that girl in your sorority having a hard time because her parents just got a divorce? Offer a listening ear. Are your parents struggling to get dinner on the table? Offer to help cook for them.

At first, this may seem scary to forget about what others might be thinking about you. But, even though I am not a psychologist, I am positive that this is effective. Soon, tuning in to other people’s needs will become second nature to you. People will begin to see you in a new light. They will appreciate that you give your time, energy, money, talents, or whatever it is in order to help them. Even if they don’t say so out in the open, people know when someone is making a sacrifice for them. And they appreciate it. And they remember it.

And soon, these people will be more open to you. As you can imagine, people are much more receptive to people who not only say that they care, but also show that they care. Soon you will find that you have a wide range of loyal friends. Now that, my friends, is living. Not staying inside feeling fear and anxiety all the time. Do not let yourself be defeated. Make yourself go out, and make yourself concentrate on others. Don’t clam up, because once you enter the comfort of your shell, you might not come back out. Break the shell. Smash it. Smash it so that shutting yourself in isn’t an option. Because you have so much to offer. Even to just one person, you could be that listening ear or helpful hand that they need to make it through something really hard. Be open to people, and they will be open to you.

Note: the comic I used comes from Social Anxiety Comics

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The Basics of Social Anxiety

Yesterday I decided (on a whim) to write a poem about social anxiety. If you want to read it for context, click here. If you aren’t familiar with social anxiety, here are some basics.

1. What is social anxiety?   

Social anxiety is a feeling of discomfort, fear, or worry that is centered on our interactions with other people and involves a concern with being judged negatively, evaluated, or looked down upon by others. While it can often happen during the social exchange itself, it may also pop up in anticipation of a social occasion, or afterward when we review our performance in a given situation (socialanxietysupport.com).

2. How common is it?

An estimated 19.2 million Americans have social anxiety. Just for reference, America has a total population of about 313.9 million. (webmd.com)

3. What causes social anxiety?

According to socialanxietysupport.com, our genes, our brains, and our life experiences. You can read about all three of them in detail if you follow the link.

4. According to webmd.com, some common anxiety-inducing situations are:

  • Eating or drinking in front of others.
  • Writing or working in front of others.
  • Being the center of attention.
  • Interacting with people, including dating or going to parties.
  • Asking questions or giving reports in groups.
  • Using public toilets.
  • Talking on the telephone

5. How bad is it?

People with social anxiety disorder suffer from distorted thinking, including false beliefs about social situations and the negative opinions of others. Without treatment, social anxiety disorder can negatively interfere with the person’s normal daily routine, including school, work, social activities, and relationships (webmd.com).

6. Is it always bad?

According to socialanxietysupport.com, no. Anxiety makes us more alert to our surroundings, helping us to jump out of the way of a speeding car or to run away from an attacker. So when do you cross the line of normal anxiety?

“Social anxiety becomes a problem only when it is so severe that it is excessive or outside the “norm,” and when it causes major problems in our overall functioning and quality of life. When our social anxiety leads us to consistently avoid social situations, to be very distressed when exposed to them, to have excessive fears of being negatively judged by others, or to miss out on things that we otherwise strongly want or need to do, mental health professionals may consider a diagnosis of Social Phobia (also known as Social Anxiety Disorder) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).”

A Poem on Social Anxiety

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Sometimes I worry about what others think

I speak in public and my face turns pink

I make a mistake

and my hands begin to quake

I sit down alone

and now I’m in the loser zone

and my head fills up with doubts

and I look around but there’s no way out

so I just sit here all quiet instead

feeling all misread

like a book that’s tossed aside

because it didn’t follow the rules supplied

but was sad when they wanted happy

and funny when they wanted sappy

and so

book, you lay forgotten

just lying there all rotten

feeling all out of sync with society

because no one seemed to like your variety

and now you have social anxiety

and you’re probably gaining notoriety

and what happened to your old sobriety?

but then

a gentle hand reaches in

and takes you from the bin

she reads you as you are

and now she’s gotten pretty far

and she’s still laughing at all the right parts

and wiping her eyes when you tug at hearts

she’s lost in your tale

and now she exhales

and takes you over to a friend

and now he’s laughing in the middle and crying at the end

and now he’s giving you to someone else on lend

who laughs in the middle and cries at the end

and types you up and hits send

and now you’ve gone viral-

just the beginning of an upward spiral

and now your pages are scanned by eager eyes

who read you and print you as a prize

so now

maybe you weren’t so out of sync

perhaps you need to sit and rethink

yes, perhaps you listened to that one insult

and assumed a unanimous result

your mind was skewed

and you thought you were being booed

but really that one person was just being crude

so give others a chance

to explore you beyond a first glance

because there is a trove of treasures within

just waiting and waiting and lying therein.

“If we repeatedly are put in situations where we are made to feel different, to fear the judgment of other people, or are somehow singled out in a negative way, we can understandably develop beliefs about ourselves and the world that are more consistent with social anxiety. As these experiences continue, we may also begin to selectively pay attention only to those parts of our environment that reinforce our negative beliefs – for example, a public speaker may focus on the two people in her audience who appear bored, while she may hardly notice the 38 others who are watching and nodding with great interest” (socialanxietysupport.com).

Was JFK Smart or Handsome?

Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon participated in four debates spaced out between September 26th and October 21st during the presidential election of 1960. You may recall from your history class that these were the first televised debates. This was huge. How huge? Let’s just say that, according to entertainmentacene360.com, 87% of American households had a tv set. And they used them.

The television was a common household item and viewers were ready to extend their television experience past entertainment. For the first of the debates, which took place in Chicago, Illinois, 66.4 million people tuned in to swoon over JFK (debates.org). Oh, and to listen to Nixon talk about serious topics.

 JFK had just finished up his campaign in California, and he had that summertime glow which perfectly set off his pearly whites.  He was a fit and eloquent young man who performed well in front of an audience. Then there was Nixon. He had injured his knee on a car door while campaigning in North Carolina, but he refused to rest. He had an impressive, yet unwise, goal to campaign in all 50 states before the election on November 8.  A tragic mistake. He showed up to the debates as a pale, haggard-looking, old man who appeared sweaty and fidgety under Kennedy’s confidant gaze.

Before television, no one would have cared about their appearance. All they had were the words of the candidates, and that was enough. But Nixon was not so lucky. The debate polls came in. The radio listeners thought that Nixon had won. However, the television viewers thought that JFK had won.

Image is powerful. So powerful. After these televised debates, Nixon lost his lead in the election. Kennedy surged on ahead for a narrow victory, but a victory nonetheless (just a .17% lead in the popular vote!). Do you think that these four debates swung the election in Kennedy’s favor? Perhaps you were alive for this debate and remember it well. Feel free to comment below with your opinion on the matter.

I remember learning about these debates in U.S. History class. Everyone remembers that 1. they were the first televised debates and 2. they proved that appearance matters more than words. This doesn’t make us voters look too good.

However, whilst browsing Wikipedia (sorry to all my teachers ever) I found a legitimate source with a conflicting opinion. This quote comes via the Encyclopedia of Media and Politics.

Evidence in support of this belief is mainly limited to sketchy reports about a market survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company in which 49% of those who listened to the debates on radio said Nixon had won compared to 21% naming Kennedy, while 30% of those who watched the debates on television said Kennedy had won compared to 29% naming Nixon. Contrary to popular belief, the Sindlinger evidence suggests not that Kennedy won on television but that the candidates tied on television while Nixon won on radio. However, no details about the sample have ever been reported, and it is unclear whether the survey results can be generalized to a larger population. Moreover, since 87% of American households had a television in 1960, most people were able to watch the debates. The fraction of Americans lacking access to television in 1960 was concentrated in rural areas and particularly in southern and western states, places that were unlikely to hold significant proportions of Catholic voters. Radio listeners in 1960 were therefore predisposed to vote Republican, casting further doubt on whether the Sindlinger survey results speak to the effects of television or merely of the urban/rural split in Nixon’s support. 

From this journalistically sound information, it appears that the information from the 1960 debates were exaggerated for effect. It definitely made for an interesting study. But, in the end, the candidates appeared to tie on television, while Nixon won on the radio. Furthermore, Republicans were more likely to be listening on the radio, and thus more likely to support Nixon, and vice versa. This is actually still true now. Republican radio personalities rule talk radio. No question.

While this does present a more balanced view of the debate reactions, I don’t think that this completely negates it’s significance. For Nixon to go from a tie on television, to a pretty clear win on radio, is odd. Nixon had more experience than Kennedy and the content of his words showed that. Kennedy was more confidant than Nixon and the appearance of his face and body language showed that. This means that the radio listeners got the best of Nixon, while the television viewers got the worst of Nixon. And vice versa.

In addition, when radio listeners tune out their ears, they miss the whole message. However, when television viewers tune out their ears, their eyes can still interpret the message visually. Perhaps you have experienced this before. Sometimes when I’m watching a film, especially a complex one, I tune out the words and just watch the moving pictures. It’s much easier, and I feel like I am still following along until I have to turn to the unfortunate friend who has agreed to watch a complex film with me and ask, “Wait, what’s happening?” With the debates, a complex and heavy program, perhaps viewers who could not keep up with the political talk unknowingly judged the candidates based on their appearance instead. After all, our brain processes much of our surroundings subconsciously. For example, you probably remember where you ate dinner yesterday even though you didn’t consciously commit it to memory.

In conclusion, appearance did not play into the 1960 debates as much as we had originally thought. However, there is definitely still a correlation there. But, if we’re being fair, Kennedy was definitely not just handsome, he was very smart and one of the best public speakers America has ever seen. I’m sure that those who voted for him in the polls were influenced by these factors as well. This was not Stephanie Myers v. Shakespeare. This was more like Mark Twain v. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Who are you going to pick, you know?

The Psychology of Attraction

382203_10151257877851875_397838797_nMy sister Melissa got engaged earlier this year at the Biltmore House to the most wonderful man named Lance, and the photographer obviously captured the moment perfectly. But why did she fall for Lance? Why did Lance fall for her? Can that really be studied scientifically?

According to my psychology textbook “Exploring Psychology” by David G. Myers (pp. 607-608), it absolutely can. In fact, there are “three ingredients of our liking for one another: proximity, physical attractiveness, and similarity.”

1. Proximity. This one – “geographic nearness”- is simple enough. You can’t date or become friends with someone who you haven’t even had the chance to meet. However, this goes beyond just having more opportunities to run into one another.

Seeing “novel stimuli” again and again, whether that be a face or a song or an artwork, actually “increases our liking for them.” This is called the mere exposure effect.

Psychologists Richard Moreland and Scott Beach even conducted a simple experiment on this effect in 1992. They found four “equally attractive” females and sent them into a class for zero, 5, 10, or 15 class periods throughout the semester. When the semester ended, the two researchers asked the class of 200 students to rate each of the four women. Just as the researchers had suspected, the students ranked the women in order of attractiveness from the female they had seen the most (15 times) to the female they had seen the least (zero times).

2. Physical Attractiveness. I must confess, I was really excited when I saw this listed as number two. I feel like having science back up the purpose of your blog is pretty legit. Yeah science!

“Once proximity affords you contact, what most affects your first impressions: The person’s sincerity? Intelligence? Personality? Hundreds of experiments reveal that it is something far more superficial: Appearance.”

That’s straight from a textbook folks, and we have an experiment from Elaine Hatfield to demonstrate this. She randomly paired up new students at the University of Minnesota for a “Welcome Week Dance.” After two hours of dancing and mingling, she asked each of the boys and girls to rate each other. Only one factor played into their ratings of each other: physical attractiveness. Hatfield had rated each of the student’s attractiveness beforehand, and each of the student’s ratings for their dates corresponded directly with Hatfield’s attractiveness ratings for them.

Well, college kids are just superficial you say. Actually, even babies prefer to gaze up at attractive faces as opposed to unattractive faces. Ouch.

Well, isn’t beauty in the eye of beholder? Not necessarily. While some people may prefer brunettes over blonds or blue eyes over brown eyes, there are a lot of characteristics that cross time and cultures. In general, all people consider big eyes, clear skin, straight jawlines, full lips, and, most importantly, symmetrical faces, beautiful. In fact, when we see someone with these characteristics, we actually perceive them to be “healthier, happier, more sensitive, more successful, and more socially skilled” (pg. 608).

3. Similarity. Contrary to popular opinion, opposites do not tend to attract. Time and time again experiments have proved that people become friends with and fall in love with people who are similar to them. “Friends and couples are far more likely to share common attitudes, beliefs, and interests (and, for that matter, age, religion, race, education, intelligence, smoking behavior, and economic status) than are randomly paired people” (pg 610).

I think that the simple reason for this is that we like people who agree with us. It’s nice to have someone affirm your opinions. This doesn’t mean that you want someone to agree with you 100% of the time, because that would be boring. But at the same time, you don’t want someone who fervently disagrees with you 60% of the time, do you? If this were the case, then you would not understand each other. You would be frustrated. How can he believe that? I just don’t understand.

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Concluding Remarks: So, just to confirm this study, I’d like to evaluate Melissa and Lance without their permission. Sorry guys. 1. Proximity: They both went to the University of Georgia and they both attended a Bible Study on campus once a week, which is where they met. 2. Attractiveness: Lance said that when he first saw Melissa at this Bible study, he thought that she was the most beautiful girl that he’d ever seen. And Melissa thinks Lance is pretty cute too. 3. Similarity: They are both Christians. They are both kind to a fault and very polite. They both enjoy traveling. They are both UGA grads. Neither of them smoke. And they are both at about the same economic status: broke. I kid, but he’s in medical school, so I’m not too worried about them. All in all, they are both very similar in their beliefs, attitudes, and interests.

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Notice too how one ingredient leads to the next. First, you just notice someone everyday in class/at work, or once a week at church, or every once in a while when you visit a friend’s house. Second, you notice that this person is physically attractive. Third, you start to actually talk and interact with this person. If you find that you share similar beliefs, attitudes, and interests, then you will end up liking each other and wanting to spend more time together. And, who knows, she or he might just be the one. However, if you are not like-minded at all, the relationship will probably terminate at this step, or continue on in a superficial way in which neither person is very content.

What do ya’ll think? I’d be interested to hear if anyone can confirm or deny this based on experience or observance? I think that it’s a pretty good determinant of blossoming friendships and/or romantic relationships.

Maya Angelou Thinks You are Strong & Beautiful

Once a week, I’d like to make an encouraging post on the subject of beauty. It’s nice to mix in light, encouraging topics, right? I think so. This weeks encouraging post is geared toward all women who need a confidence boost to get through their Friday. 

Maya Angelou, born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, is best known for her autobiographical works, such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She is a writer, a poet, a director, a screenwriter, a playwright, a singer, a historian and a teacher. Most recently, she has been teaching at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. You can click on this link if you want to read her 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Although her poetry is criticized by some and praised by others, I like to look at poems individually. I cannot judge her other poems, but I like this one. To me, this poem describes a woman who draws admiring eyes, not because she is perfect, but because she is confidant. And she is confidant, not because she is perfect, but because she has accepted herself as she is. This acceptance of her entire self, which is so rare to see, makes her stand out from the crowd like a tall and sturdy sunflower in a field of slumped-over daffodils. When you accept yourself as you are, you say, “Okay this is what I have to work with. Now let’s see what my strengths are.” In this way, you get to know yourself which, in turn, gives you confidence.

Imagine that you are an art major and you have to present an enormous painting for a class project. If you have spent all your time worrying about the little imperfections (that line is a little crooked, I don’t like how dark the background is, that person’s eyes are too close together) then you aren’t going to know how to present the painting in a favorable light. In fact, you won’t really know how to present your painting at all. You spent all your time wondering how you could fix its few weaknesses instead of concentrating on its many strengths. And, thus, you really don’t know your painting.

In life, be sure your prepared. Childhood and adolescence are your time to examine and explore your strengths and weaknesses so that you know how to present yourself in a favorable light. From job interviews, to social situations, to everyday life, you need to know how to best present your strengths that you are confidant in. If you know you’re funny, tell a joke. If you know you’re better one-on-one then find someone who needs a friend. If you’re gifted athletically, teach a class at the gym or try out for a team. Play to your strengths instead of focusing on your weaknesses.  Extra Hint: Each time you play to your strengths, you gain more experience in that area, which makes that strength even stronger. Then people start to notice that strength and compliment you on that strength and then hire you because of that strength. And then you gain more confidence! What a cycle.

That’s my interpretation. If you have any insights feel free to leave them in the comment below. Sometimes poems mean something different to each person who reads it, but I think that this one is rather straight-forward.

Phenomenal Woman

by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

TED Talk: Looks Aren’t Everything

If you’ve never heard of TED talks, then stop reading this and visit this link. You’re back already? Don’t you feel smarter?

TED talks are brilliant. They encourage creativity and innovation in politics, religion, and culture in general. Yesterday I saw the one titled ‘Looks aren’t Everything. Believe me. I’m a model.’ and I squealed with delight (not really). But I didn’t know just how relevant it would be to this blog. I have been trying to put my specific purpose for this blog into words and here it is via Cameron Russell’s closing statement in the above video:

“If there’s a takeaway to this talk I hope it’s that we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes and our perceived failures.”

That’s what I want. Like I said yesterday, we will never get 313.9 million individual Americans to forget about outward looks. We are biologically programmed to be attracted to and to respond better to physically beautiful things. But I think that we often ignore this issue. Sure we talk about the cruelty of the modeling business on girls’ self-esteem. But that’s about it. What about bias in the workplace? in dating? in receiving free stuff? in getting a traffic ticket? in getting frisked at the airport? Just because there isn’t a solve-all solution doesn’t mean an issue isn’t worth exploring and trying to understand.

Still don’t think it’s a real world issue? Listen to a few of Russell’s current statistics. In 2007 a student counted 677 models. Only 27 were non-white. “Of the 140,000 teenagers that were stopped and frisked [in New York], 86% of them were black and latino.” I know I’ve mainly been talking about the benefits given to attractive females, but there it is. This problem is so much bigger than most people are willing to acknowledge.

I want to leave you with another quote that I found particularly insightful and will be making a full post on later this week:

“There’s very little that we can do to transform how we look. And how we look, though it is superficial and immutable, has a huge impact on our lives.”