Those of you who are familiar with social anxiety will understand how hard social interactions may be for people suffering from this disorder. Simple everyday situations that seem perfectly fine to most people, such as talking to a stranger in the street or making a phone call, can lead to intense disturbing symptoms that accompany anxiety and stress: high heart rate, trembling, excessive sweating, etc.
And it’s not only about physical symptoms. It seems that socially anxious people can’t have a “normal” life – meeting new people, making friends, going out and partying – as almost any social situation causes discomfort and confusion.
Many of them believe that something is wrong with them and they need to be “fixed”. But it’s not always as it seems, and there may be much more profound causes behind social anxiety disorder than we are used to think.
The prevailing point of view on the causes of social phobia in psychiatry states that the condition is associated with the fear of being judged by others. But what if socially anxious people are simply too sensitive to other people’s energy and emotions, which are so intense and devastating that they are forced to avoid any social interactions?
A study published in 2011 showed that individuals with social phobias are hypersensitive to other people’s states of mind. It means that they can easily perceive and accurately distinguish feelings of those around them, which basically makes them empaths, or people capable of feeling and sharing the emotions of others.
To come to these conclusions, the study authors assessed the levels of empathy in 21 highly socially anxious and 22 low socially anxious individuals, using the Liebowitz social anxiety scale. It was found that the first group of participants exhibited elevated empathy tendencies and were more accurate in recognizing mental states in other people.
The results imply that individuals with social phobia “demonstrate a unique social-cognitive abilities profile with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions.” Of course, larger scale research is needed to confirm this hypothesis, but the results are rather convincing.
What does it mean for people suffering from social phobias? It means that they actually are very special, gifted people rather than mental patients and freaks. They possess a rare gift of empathy, which makes them able to feel the emotional experiences of people around them. But this flood of emotions and energy is so devastating that the brain causes those disturbing symptoms in the body in order to avoid and protect itself from this “emotional pollution”.
So, if you suffer from social anxiety, remember that you don’t need to be “fixed” – you just need to find the right environment and occupation that will suit your personality and lifestyle. Rather than exposing yourself to social situations in an attempt to overcome it and become more sociable, be careful of the people you surround yourself with and the situations you face every day. Don’t try to become “normal” and to do what everyone else is doing – this way you will never be happy. Instead, focus on your inner feelings and listen to yourself. As soon as you find the right surrounding and occupation that will use your strengths rather than challenging your weaknesses, you will reach the inner harmony.
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Artwork by Justin Bonnet