By Robert F. Mullen, PhD
The distinction between social anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a matter of severity; reference to one includes the other. The recovery tools and techniques provided apply to most emotional malfunctions, including depression, substance abuse, generalized anxiety, and self- esteem and motivation issues. These conditions originate homogeneously, their trajectories differentiated by environment, experience, and the diversity of human thought and behavior.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is culturally identifiable by our persistent fear and avoidance of social interaction and performance situations, which cause us to miss the opportunities that connect us with the world. Notwithstanding our desire to recover, our feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness convince us that not only are we broken, but we are irreparable and unworthy of the effort.
Recovery is Transformation
The difference between pre-recovery and in-recovery is immeasurable. Social anxiety steals our autonomy, hopes, and self-esteem. Recovery regains what has been stolen or lost. It realizes our strengths, virtues, and attributes. We become stronger and more confident, especially in controlling our lives and claiming our rights as valuable and consequential contributors to society.
Recovery is a transformation – a rigorous and dramatic change in form and nature. Through proactive neuroplasticity, we change the form and configuration of our neural network. Thought and behavior self-modification subverts the destructive nature of our negative self-appraisal. Mindfulness of our assets and possibilities regenerates our self-esteem. Hence, our form and nature transform.
This writing contains thoughts and observations from my work with clients in recovery and my personal bouts with social anxiety. The quotes are from workshop graduates.
The ‘Neglected’ Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety is ostensibly the most underrated and misunderstood emotional affliction. Nicknamed the ‘neglected anxiety disorder’ therapists avoid it due to difficulty distinguishing its symptoms and identifying specific etiological and risk factors. Few understand it, and even fewer know how to address it effectively. One has to experience social anxiety to recognize its destructive severity.
Anxiety is a normal facet of life, and the typical individual accords it appropriate deference. Those of us experiencing SAD personify our symptoms, dramatize them, and obsess about their negative implications. We create mountains out of molehills, spending our days in tortuous anticipation of our projected adverse outcomes. We beat ourselves up daily for our perceived incompetence and inability to function socially.
We feel shame for our condition because society inherently fears and loathes what it refuses to understand. Shame is painful and incapacitating. It makes us feel powerless and acutely diminished. It makes us want to hide and become invisible. And, it drives us to withdraw from the world and avoid human connection.
One client shares, “I spent high school trying to hide in every dark corner with a book in my face. I never once ate lunch in four years, and never once went to the bathroom in four years at my high school, for fear of having to interact with people.”
Symptoms and Traits
SAD attacks on all fronts, delivering mental confusion, emotional instability, physical dysfunction, and spiritual malaise. Emotionally, we are depressed and lonely. In social situations, we sweat, tremble, mumble, and hyperventilate. Mentally, our thoughts are distorted and irrational. Spiritually, we define ourselves as inadequate and insignificant. Many of us suffer from depression and gamble with substance abuse to blunt the discomfort of our condition.
Our social interactions are clumsy, small talk inelegant, and attempts at humor embarrassing. We self-prophesize criticism, ridicule, and rejection. SAD is repressive and intractable, imposing self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. It establishes its authority through defeatist measures produced by inaccurate and unsound interpretations of reality. “Anxiety has crippled me, locked me in a cage and has become my master.” ̶ Elizabeth G.
We fear the unknown and unexplored. We crave companionship but shun intimacy, expecting to be deemed undesirable. We circle the block repeatedly before a social event to bolster our courage. More often than not, we end up in the bar around the corner. It is not our situational fears that destroy our lives; it is our ‘inability’ to confront them.
Cumulative evidence that childhood disturbance is a primary causal factor in emotional instability has been well-established. While the word ‘disturbance’ generates images of overt abuse, any number of things define it. Parents may be controlling or unable to provide emotional validation. Perhaps we are subject to sibling bullying or a broken home.
Disturbance can be intentional or accidental, real or imagined. (The suggestibility of the pre-adolescent is legendary.) A toddler whose parental quality time is interrupted by a phone call can form a core belief of abandonment. SAD senses the emotional vulnerability and onsets at adolescence, often lingering in our system for years before manifesting.
It’s Not Our Fault
It is essential to recognize that our social anxiety is not our fault nor the result of aberrant behavior. We did not ask for it. We did not make it happen. It happened to us. We are not accountable for the hand we have been dealt.
We are, however, responsible for how we play the cards in our hand. The onus of recovery is on us. Experts supply the tools, but we must take them out of the shed and put them to work.
Undoubtedly, this sociological model conflicts with moral models that claim our behaviors are responsible for onset or that it is God’s punishment for sin. Those beliefs are sadly misinformed.
Social connectedness is a central requirement for emotional well-being. In unambiguous terms, the desire for acceptance is at the heart of our condition, but our social avoidance and fear of intimacy challenge our ability to establish, develop, and maintain healthy relationships. We feel trapped in a vicious circle, restricted from living a productive life, alienated from our peers, and isolated from our families. Bryce S. writes: “I find myself very scared to open up, be honest, be intimate, and trust people … I guess I realized I’m starved for genuine connections.”
We store information consistent with our negative beliefs. Even when inaccurate, they define how we think about ourselves, how we think others think about us, and how we process that information. By declining to question these beliefs, we sustain a cognitive bias that compels us to misinterpret experience. Even when we accept the irrationality of our fears and apprehensions, their emotional impact is so significant that our attitudes, rules, and
assumptions run roughshod over any healthy, rational response.
SAD in Recovery
How do we recover? We exponentially erode SAD’s negativity by compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry. We counter our fears and anxieties by rationally responding to the automatic negative thoughts perpetuating them. We identify and process our defense mechanisms – those irrational thought patterns that twist our thinking and paint a distorted picture of ourselves and our world. We recognize that our learned helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness are SAD-induced falsities.
Neuroplasticity is evidence of our brain’s constant adaptation to stimuli. Scientists refer to the process as structural remodeling of the brain. It’s what makes learning and registering new experiences possible. All information notifies our neural network to realign, generating a correlated change in behavior and perspective.
What is significant is our ability to dramatically accelerate and consolidate learning by compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry. The deliberate, repetitive neural input of positive information (DRNI) empowers us to transform our thoughts and behaviors, creating healthy new mindsets, skills, and abilities. Proactive neuroplasticity is not psychology but hard science. They share credit for recovery.
Goal and Objectives
The primary goal of recovery from social anxiety is the moderation of our fears and anxieties. We achieve this through a three-pronged approach.
1. Replace or overwhelm our negative thoughts and behaviors with healthy, productive ones.
2. Produce rapid, concentrated neurological stimulation to overwhelm the negative abundance of our neural network.
3. Regenerate our self-esteem through mindfulness of our assets.
A one-size-fits-all recovery strategy cannot sufficiently address individual complexity. We are better served by integrating multiple traditional and non-traditional approaches developed through client trust, cultural assimilation, and therapeutic innovation. Our environment, heritage, conflicts, and associations reflect our wants, choices, and aspirations. If they are not given serious consideration, then we are not appropriately valued.
A coalescence of science, psychology, and philosophy is essential to capture the diversity of human thought and experience. The science of proactive neuroplasticity aids in restructuring our neural network. Cognitive and behavioral mechanisms help us replace or overcome toxic thoughts and behaviors. Positive psychologies focus on reclaiming our strengths, virtues, and attributes. Philosophy, existentially defined, welcomes religious and spiritual insight.
The recovery process is theoretically simple but challenging due to the long-term commitment. We cannot replace self-destructive motivations and actions overnight. We are emotionally averse to change, and human physiology is hard-wired to oppose anything jeopardizing its equilibrium. Our brain’s inertia senses and repels change, and our basal ganglia resist modifying behavior patterns. That’s why habits are hard to break and resolutions challenging to maintain.
But change is overtly doable, and that’s the message here. Recovery works, and the transformation is extraordinary. “It is one of the best investments I have made in myself, and I will continue to improve and benefit from it for the rest of my life.” – Nick P.
Behavior modification is a concerted process. Regenerating our self-esteem requires intense introspection and cognitive comprehension. Neural restructuring demands a tedious regimen that fails to deliver immediate tangible results, causing us to readily concede defeat in this era of instant gratification.
However, once we start down the path, our capacity for transformation grows exponentially. All learning and experience notify our neural network to realign, generating a continuous and correlated change in behavior and perspective. A comprehensive recovery program provides the tools and techniques. The decision to utilize them is on us.
About The Author
Dr. Robert F. Mullen is the director of ReChanneling Inc., which develops and implements programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional malfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives ̶ harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. A published academic author worldwide, Dr. Mullen conducts workshops and seminars on social anxiety and other emotional malfunctions. Recognized as the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity, Dr. Mullen targets the individual personality in recovery. Contact him through the ReChanneling website.
About The Guest Post
As you could probably tell, this guest post was written by Dr. Robert F. Mullen and is a guest post on Lifesfinewhine. I have followed Dr. Mullen’s blog for a long time as I am quite interested in psychology and his posts are incredibly informative- as evidenced by this one. I am very glad that this post is the one he chose to share on this blog because I was actually diagnosed with social anxiety at nineteen. Back then, I knew nothing about mental health and it took me ages on Google and helpful articles like this one to actually manage it. So, posts like this one are something I think is vital to share with the world.
I would really recommend reading Dr. Mullen’s other articles on his site too. And do follow his blog for similar content. You can view his website by clicking here or view it on your reader by clicking here.
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