A Brief on Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by a fear of different social situations. At its core, people with social anxiety disorder fear negative evaluation. Specifically, they are afraid of how people will perceive them in social situations.
“He’s so boring”
“She’s stupid and doesn’t seem like she knows what she is talking about”
“They look disheveled and unkempt; so tacky”
These are a few possible worries that people with social anxiety may think about in the presence of other people.
The Problem with Avoidance
Avoidance behaviours (also known as ‘safety behaviours’) are how all anxiety disorders are maintained. The idea is that avoiding a fear leads to short-term relief but long-term pain. This is because people feel good in the short-term because they have avoided the situation. However, the issues are that 1) the fear is maintained because we never face the situation and our brain continues to believe that the situation is dangerous and 2) even if our worst-case scenario is true, we don’t know if we can cope.
In some ways, avoidance cuts us off from thinking through the most important part – is this anxious belief actually true and could I cope with it if it happened?
Avoidance behaviours can be quite obvious at times, but they can also sneak up in subtle ways. Below, I’ll talk about avoidance behaviours that someone with social anxiety could engage in to avoid fully immersing into a social situation.
Examples of Avoidance Behaviours in Social Anxiety Disorder
1. Full on avoidance. Some people will simply avoid social situations – full stop. They may decline offers to go to hang-outs, parties, or meetings with unfamiliar people. They may feign sickness to avoid presentations. This is avoidance in its purest form.
2. Overpreparation. Perhaps a more subtle type of avoidance is overpreparation. In this case, a person might practice a presentation for many hours to commit every last detail to memory in order to ensure that they will not mess anything up and fall victim to negative evaluation. This is a more subtle form of avoidance behaviour because the person will show up to presentations and social gatherings. However, the tricky part is the number of brutal hours they used above and beyond what they probably would have needed to excel in a presentation or a social gathering. Moreover, sometimes overpreparation can be troublesome on its own, because the conversation or presentation can become stilted. Or if something throws them off script, recovering can be challenging.
3. Bringing a friend along. Some people find comfort in having a ‘safety person’ that they can rely on in social situations. They may drag their friend to different social events as a crutch to fall on in case they need someone to talk to or simply as a calming presence.
4. Substance use. Similar to having a friend, substance use (e.g., alcohol) may be another safety behaviour that someone with social anxiety uses to calm their nerves before an anticipated social gathering. Some people might pregame before a party or in some instances, a work presentation, to take the edge off their social anxiety.
5. Avoiding eye contact. You may notice that people sometimes intentionally keep their eyes low and avoid eye contact in social anxiety. The difficulty in maintaining eye contact can sometimes be because they are avoiding potential evidence of negative evaluation. Much of our emotions can come from our facial expressions (e.g., frowning, eye contact) and someone with social anxiety may avoid looking others in the face out of fear of seeing evidence that the other person appears disinterested or unhappy with them. Unfortunately, these behaviours can sometimes have a self-fulfilling prophecy because they may lead the other person to think they are disinterested!
6. Other subtle avoidance behaviour. Avoidance behaviours can occur in all shapes and sizes. Some may not even appear to be a safety behaviours to avoid something negative from happening. However, the importance is the intention. What is this behaviour doing for that individual? For example, humor is often a great tool in social situations. However, if the person is being funny with the intention of always making sure that the other person is not bored of them, then that may be an indicator that humor is being used as an avoidance behaviour. In these cases, you’ll have to put on an investigative hat to determine whether a behaviour is functioning as a safety behaviour or for another purpose.
I hope this post was helpful in learning about common avoidance patterns in social anxiety!
If you’re interested, here’s some more information on other anxiety disorders and common thinking errors in depression! Behavioural experiments and exposures can also be great ways to support working through avoidance behaviours!
If there are other avoidance behaviours you know of, please share them with others in the comments!
Featured Photo Credits: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash