Saturday, August 12, 2006

Social Anxiety, Shyness, and Highly Sensitive People

My partner Kira recently loaned me a book she has been reading (The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron) on highly sensitive people (you can take a self-test here to see if you might be a highly sensitive person -- turns out that I am). There is a chapter that deals with shyness and social anxiety, though she doesn't use the phrase social anxiety.
How to Think About Your "Social Discomfort"

Social discomfort (the term I prefer to "shy") is almost always due to overarousal, which makes you act, speak, or appear not very socially skilled. Or it is the dread that you will become overarousd. You dread doing something awkward, not being able to think of what to say. But the dread itself is usually enough now to create the overarousal, once in the situation.

Remember, discomfort is temporary, and it gives you choices. Suppose you are uncomfortably cold. You can tolerate it. You can find a more congenial environment. You can create some heat -- build a fire, turn up the thermostat -- or ask those in charge to do it. You can put on a coat. The one thing you should not do is blame yourself for being inherently more susceptible to a cold environment.

The same is true of a termporary social discomfort due to overarousal. You can put up with it, leave the situation, change the social atmosphere or ask others to, or do something else to make you more comfortable, like put on your "persona".
This last line caught my attention. I recently posted a guest article at Anxious Living on how I cope with social anxiety and an "out there" job as a personal trainer. I didn't know that others used this approach to dealing social discomfort, as Aron calls it.

Her basic premise in the chapter is that shyness is a state and not a trait, meaning that it is context specific. I think the same thing can be said about social anxiety to a certain extent. We do not feel anxious with those we know and trust. We do not feel anxious with family (or at least not in the same way we do with strangers -- some of us feel very anxious with family, but for a lot of other reasons). But we do feel anxious in new situations and with new people.

Aron's vision of "social discomfort" has the following characteristics, which seem to be somewhat integral in an all quadrant kind-of-way:
1. A physiological constitution that makes the individual more sentive than most to physical stimuli: sound, light, scents, space (crowding), and a host of others. The foundation principle of the highly sensitive person is an acutely sensitive nervous system. She estimates about 15-20 percent of the population is highly sensitive.

2. Many environments can push such a person into "overarousal," meaning sensory overload -- too much input for such a sensitive system. My own sense of this is that it is getting harder and harder to avoid such environments. Televisions are on everywhere all the time. Muzak is the auditory equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Everyone is wearing some kind of scent -- or hasn't showered in days. Car stereos can rival the noise level of a jet taking off -- and are usually playing something that is offensive even at low volume levels. And it goes on and on.

3. Overarousal seems to produce some form of "shut down" in the person experiencing it.
[T]oo much arousal of the nervous system and anyone will become distressed, clumsy, and confused. We cannot think; the body is not coordinated; we feel out of control.
While this has physical manifestations, as noted, there is also an interior element in that the person may become more emotionally volatile, moody, self-conscious, and suffer feelings of abnormality or being "broken" in some way. After all, some studies show that 75 percent of the population (in the US) is socially outgoing. Essentially, the person becomes anxious about feeling anxious -- a negative feedback loop.

4. Those who suffer social discomfort often experience the sense that others are watching them or judging them. This is not without foundation, as Aron talks about in the chapter.
[S]tudies have shown that most people on first meeting those I would call HSPs considered them shy and equated that with anxious, awkward, fearful, inhibited, and timid. Even mental health professionals have rated them, more often than not, this way and also as lower on intellectual competence, achievement, and mental health, which, in fact, bear no association with shyness.
Just because you're anxious doesn't mean they aren't judging you. People are quick to pick up on the person who "doesn't fit in" for whatever reason, and social discomfort is as good a reason as any for people to start judging others. When someone becomes the target of this, it can amplify the interior sense in #3 of being messed up or broken.
What Aron is trying to get her readers to accept is that there is nothing wrong with them. In fact HSPs have many gifts for sensing social subtlety that others lack. I think the same can be said for those who suffer from social anxiety.

Are all of us who experience SA also to be seen as HSP? I don't know.

Aron does suggest a new context though: We are not socially anxious people; we are people who feel anxious in some social situations -- a state not a trait. This is an important distinction.

I'd love to hear what others think about this. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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