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The Science behind Social Anxiety

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Contributor: Grace Sebulsky

University presents this unique opportunity for one to pursue an education while also beginning to live life as a full-fledged adult. And yet, said adulting becomes decidedly difficult when feelings of nervousness become associated with social situations. Rest assured, the shaky hands, unexplainable blushing and the inability to conform to any social norms when conversing is truly a common feeling. But, why does this social anxiety occur?

Anxiety is the activation of your fight or flight mechanism, whether the threat is present or perceived. In order to trigger this response, the limbic system, composed of the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the amygdala, is activated. When danger is perceived, the amygdala is alerted, which then sends a response up to your hypothalamus to indicate distress. In order to be able to fully respond in this situation, your hypothalamus works hand in hand with your autonomic nervous system to ensure you’re on high alert and can address the threat to the best of your abilities. Signals are sent from the hypothalamus to your adrenal glands through the autonomic nervous system. These adrenal glands then release a hormone known as adrenaline. Adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure, converts stored glycogen in the liver to glucose for more energy, dilates pupils and allows for greater reception of blood and oxygen in muscles. If a threat is still being perceived, a further hormone named cortisol is released. Following the release of adrenaline, cortisol is released by the adrenal glands to keep your body on high alert; it also releases glucose stores to provide your body with further energy. Despite the positive intention of your body’s “flight or fight” response, it has negative implications when no true threat is presented.

As such, the dread associated with talking to new people, presenting to a large crowd or being fearful of being judged while out in public is an example of an unnecessary triggered anxiety response. Further causes of social anxiety could be owed to a predisposition to acquire anxiety, as in your genetic material is already hardwired to have a more sensitive reaction to threats. As always, upbringing, past events and social implications such as maintaining one’s reputation within social circles could be contributing factors to increased social phobia.

With social anxiety, it’s important to not avoid these uncomfortable symptoms at all costs. Avoidance simply provides short-term relief from an anxiety producing situation, which can eventually lead to long-term anxiety growth. Your brain will reinforce the belief that certain social situations are dangerous, and the longer the avoidance, the greater the challenge will be when trying to reintegrate yourself. Alternatively, treatment for social anxiety is available. Resources such as therapy, medication and breathing work can lead to reduced levels of anxiety over time. Though, it should be noted that feelings of anxiety are common and beneficial in certain situations. Despite it all, social anxiety and all its flaws are truly just a symptom of your brain thinking it's doing what it's supposed to do, however inconvenient that may be to your social standing.

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