Social Anxiety and the Amygdala

Social anxiety


A lot of our social anxiety is affected by an area in the brain called the amygdala.

Research shows that the amygdala plays a big role in our emotional reactivity, especially our “fight-or-flight” response when the brain senses danger. Studies have found that an overactive amygdala often correlates with higher social anxiety and social phobia. In theory, a more active amygdala triggers increased feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness, or dread.

Sometimes our amygdala can be conditioned to have such a strong emotional response to a stimulus that it overrides our logical thinking or reason. We may rationally understand that a fear has no basis in reality, but the amygdala’s reaction is so strong that we feel this fear anyway.

Neuroscientist Daniel Goleman coined this phenomenon amygdala hijack. Other researchers on emotion, like Joseph E. Ledoux, have further elaborated on this concept, describing it as when “emotional reactions and emotional responses can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation… because the shortcut from thalamus to amygdyla completely bypasses the neocortex.”

The neocortex is usually associated with the conscious “thinking parts” of our brain, so when our fear response bypasses this region, then we often feel as though our emotions are emerging from a deeper part of our brains that lies outside of our conscious awareness.

Logical thinking is not enough to overcome social anxiety.

Many people may try overcoming their social anxiety solely by reasoning inside their heads and trying to adopt healthy beliefs (and these can certainly help!), but they are rarely enough to fully rewire our brains in order to experience less anxiety.

Thankfully, there are other methods we can use to help change the structure and reactivity of our amygdala. Here are some of those options:

  • Medication. There are several effective drugs currently on the market that have shown to have positive results in changing the structure of the amygdala. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs), like Citalopram (Celexa), Escitalopram (Lexapro, Cipralex), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), and Sertraline (Zoloft), have all shown to be effective in the treatment of social phobia. See a psychiatrist and they will help you determine if medication is right for you.
  • Meditation. Daniel Goleman has theorized that meditation helps rewire connections between our amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. Our pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that causes us to stop and think about a situation; on the other hand, the amygdala is often seen as the opposite of this: it is more impulsive and it’s activity is more subconscious. However, by rewiring the connections between these two brain structures it is possible for us to exercise more conscious control over our emotional reactions. By engaging in weekly meditation, an individual can often develop stronger feelings of relaxation and equanimity, these are great combatants toward social anxiety.
  • Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy is an important part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that encourages individuals to gradually expose themselves more to social situations and thereby become more habituated to these kinds of environments. Often by engaging in more social situations we find that our previous fears and worries were actually unfounded. And when we give our amygdala new experiences to learn from (and rewire in response to), then our anxieties can often diminish overtime.
  • Minimize substance abuse. Abusing drugs and alcohol can often damage our amygdala to the point where we depend on these substances in order to lessen our anxiety and inhibitions. While alcohol can sometimes be a valuable social lubricant, we have to be careful not to train our brains to rely on these substances in order to function properly. Moderation is key here. Here is a useful resource to help overcome substance abuse disorders.
  • Cognitive Restructuring. Cognitive structuring (or “reframing”) is another important part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that can help diminish social anxieties and phobias. While it doesn’t affect the amygdala directly, it does affect other structures connected to the amygdala including the prefrontal cortex (a part of our brain responsible for conscious thinking and decision-making) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory formation). The goal of cognitive restructuring is to change our perspective and beliefs which can often reduce “contextual fear” – fear caused by certain attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in.

As you can probably tell by now, your social anxiety can be managed with a wide array of different treatments and techniques. I and many others have found through personal experience that sometimes the very best treatment is to mix-and-match several of the above techniques. Often one technique can help, but it isn’t enough to fully overcome our excessive anxiety all by itself. Instead, you should give multiple techniques a fair chance, and by doing that you will definitely increase your probably of improving your social anxiety in the long-term.


Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement:


An Extreme Fear of Disapproval

fear of disapproval


We often have an extreme fear of disapproval from others.

This can often be driven by our evolutionary history (in the past, we depended on social approval from members of our tribe in order to survive), as well as social conditioning at a young age (from our parents and schools).

Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” defines love and belonging as one of the core needs of a healthy human being. Next to food, water, and shelter, our survival also depends on our ability to adapt to our social world and build positive relationships with others.

Continue reading

The Most Common Causes of Anxiety

anxiety

In this article I identify 3 of the most common forms of anxiety (including social anxiety, performance anxiety, and choice anxiety), as well as 5 of the most common causes of anxiety (including genes, health, psychology, history, and environment).


Anxiety disorders affect between 13-18% of the general population, but the truth is we all experience different forms of anxiety throughout our lives. An anxious mental state is often defined by feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness, or dread. It is often future-oriented, meaning that our anxieties are directed toward possible threats or negative experiences that haven’t yet happened.

In the real world, most of us experience anxiety in varying degrees depending on the situation. It isn’t always a bad thing, as some anxiety can motivate us to re-plan or re-think a situation before acting. However, excessive anxiety can be crippling to a point where we can’t decide, we don’t take action, or we mess up when the event finally comes.

Different Forms of Anxiety.

Anxiety can come in many different forms depending on what it is that triggers our feelings of fear, worry, or dread. These three types of anxiety are often the most common types discussed in modern psychology research, but there are probably other types of anxiety that don’t fit so neatly in these categories (specific phobias, existential anxiety, death anxiety, etc.) Nevertheless, these are the types of anxiety I will be referring to in this post:

    Social Anxiety

    Social anxiety is a fear or worry about social situations. We may feel uncomfortable or avoid environments that involve large groups of people (like school, work, public speeches, high school reunions, etc.) or we may even feel uncomfortable or avoid certain kinds of 1-to-1 interactions (like job interviews, dating, interacting with a stranger for the first time, or meeting a celebrity).

    Most people feel some kind of anxiety in these situations but it varies greatly from person to person. Some people may feel more comfortable in groups, while others feel more comfortable during 1-to-1 interactions. Some people may feel more comfortable talking to familiar faces, while others feel more comfortable meeting someone for the first time. It really depends on the environment and the person.

    For more on social anxiety, and how to overcome it, check out Sean Cooper’s The Shyness and Social Anxiety System.

    Performance Anxiety

    Unlike social anxiety, performance anxiety is a fear or worry about performances, such as a student taking a final exam at school, or a musician performing on stage, or an athlete playing at a big sports game. We worry that we won’t do our best, or that we will mess up or lose, and that anxiety can actually inhibit us from performing to our maximum capacity (or even performing at all, for example due to too much “stage fright”).

    Instead of focusing on what we need to get done to succeed, we become more focused on all the ways things that may go wrong. This can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our thoughts make us more uncomfortable and ill prepared, and then those thoughts lead to actions that reinforce our previous conceptions.

    Choice Anxiety

    Choice anxiety is an anxiety rooted in uncertainty when making decisions. The truth is that none of us can act or make a decision with full knowledge of what the consequences will be; the universe is just too complex, and our minds aren’t capable of completely understanding it. Due to this, we often feel anxiety when making a big decision in our life, because we don’t know if we will make the best possible choice.

    Some common big decisions we need to make throughout our lives include: what college to go to, what career to pursue, who to date/marry, where to live, what kind of car to drive, etc.

    We make decisions everyday and we have to face the “opportunity costs” from choosing one option over another. Some research suggests that the more options we have to choose from, the more difficult it is to make a decision. They claim that having more options leads to a higher “opportunity cost” (theoretically: the more we have to choose from, the more we miss out on), and when this opportunity cost becomes too big we can often suffer from paralysis by analysis. Paralysis by analysis inhibits us from making ANY decision because we are so lost on what the right course of action is.

I’m sure that you’ve experienced these kinds of anxieties through your life to varying degrees. That’s good. A lot of our anxiety can be healthy and natural. However, when it starts interfering with how we want to live our lives, then it can become a problem that we need to deal with. The first step toward dealing with this problem is identifying some of the potential causes of our anxiety, then we can determine what are the best ways to treat it.


The Most Common Causes of Anxiety

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to our anxiety (and our mental health more generally). In this section, I am going to discuss some of the most common causes of anxiety, and also some potential treatment options for each one. However, it’s important to remember that because our anxiety can be due to such a wide array of different variables, it is often better to integrate several treatment options simultaneously.

    Genes

    Certain gene variants may be associated with greater levels of anxiety. We all have a different biological make-up, and sometimes individuals may experience increased levels of anxiety for no other reason but that it is embedded in their genetic code. These genes essentially cause chemical imbalances in the brain that leader to your anxiety.

    Treatment options: If your anxiety is driven by your biology it may be possible to get prescribed medication from a professional psychiatrist. Beware, however, that many of these medications can have negative side effects (you may go through several different medications before finding one that works best – a good psychiatrist will help you through this process). Also beware that if your anxiety is caused by other factors than medication will only serve as a quick fix, but it won’t solve the deeper issues in your life. You may need to supplement your medication with other treatments.

    Health

    Anxiety can also be caused due to physical inactivity and poor diet. When we don’t treat our bodies right then that can often have an effect on our mental states.

    If we don’t eat balanced meals and get all the nutrition we need, that often means our brains aren’t getting enough nutrition either. This inhibits our brains from functionally as efficiently as they could be, which could very well become a contributor to higher levels of anxiety.

    Physical activity is also crucial to both our physical and mental health. Running, playing sports, going to the gym, dancing, and anything that provides exercise is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety that may build up throughout the days or weeks. It’s important that we have a way to channel hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) in positive and healthy ways, otherwise they manifest themselves as stress and anxiety.

    Treatment options: If you don’t already take good care of your body, you’d probably be surprised of just how much less stressed and anxious you’d be if you started taking better care of your health. Try doing little things like replacing soda with water, eating less cake, going for a jog several times a week, or being more mindful of what you eat, and you’ll begin to feel better both physically and mentally.

    Psychology (our thoughts and beliefs)

    Many psychologists believe that our thoughts and beliefs are some of the biggest contributors to our mood and anxiety. When we look at our lives from a certain perspective or worldview, we may become more anxious than if we reframed our perspective to something different and more productive. One simple example: If you go into a date or a job interview believing that “I’m not good enough,” then you set yourself up to have an anxiety-driven experience. However, if you reframed your perspective, and instead you saw yourself coming from a place of strength or value, then you would probably be less likely to be as anxious.

    Treatment options: It’s important to be mindful of the thoughts and beliefs that drive our mood and behavior. If we discover that our thoughts inhibit us from acting appropriately, then it may be appropriate to adjust those beliefs or replace them with something new. For more on this approach you can check out “Social Anxiety and CBT.”

    For more on how to use psychology and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to overcome anxiety, check out Sean Cooper’s The Shyness and Social Anxiety System.

    History

    Our personal history and past experiences can also lead to more anxiety in the future. If we have a poor track record of job interviews or dates, then we may think we are inherently incapable of succeeding in these domains of life.

    Early psychologists theorized that our self-esteem could be calculated by taking our successes and subtracting them with our failures. The more we succeed, the greater our self-esteem. While this theory definitely doesn’t depict the full picture of self-esteem, it does provide insight into one factor that can influence our self-perception.

    Treatment options: It’s important to not let past failures dictate our self-esteem or anxiety about a situation, but when we start accumulating successes it can often become easier to keep ourselves motivated to overcome obstacles in the future. Keep this in mind, reflect on success for inspiration, and you can begin to turn your history around.

    Environment

    It is also likely that our anxiety is caused by a novel or unfamiliar environment. Anxiety can often be a rational response to an unknown environment because we never quite know what will happen or what risks or at stake. Our anxiety therefore signals to us that we are in danger, and often times this can rightfully inhibit us from taking part in behavior that we may sense as too risky.

    Of course, there are also some environments that we may fear irrationally. We may understand that it is a lot safer to take a plane than drive a car, but our anxiety remains persistent despite understanding the risks at stake.

    Treatment options: One way to treat these irrational anxieties is through something known as exposure therapy. Basically, we gradually expose ourselves to these environments until we become more and more comfortable with them. This kind of therapy largely makes up the “behavioral” component in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. I also elaborate on this more in “Social Anxiety and CBT.”

These are some of the most common causes of anxiety that I know of, although I’m sure there may be other causes that don’t necessarily fit in any of these categories. As you can also probably tell by now, there is a good chance that your anxiety is a combination of one or more of these factors. What makes you “you” – and what determines your thoughts and mood – is a very complex and interconnected process. But hopefully by reading through some of these causes you now have a greater understanding of what may be the driving forces behind your anxiety.


Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement:

Emotional Independence

Emotional independence

What are some effective ways we can overcome “situational happiness” and instead begin to develop our own deeper sense of “emotional independence,” despite what our current life situation may look like.

Emotional independence is a process in which we learn how to exercise greater control and will-power over our internal states.

The opposite of emotional independence is “situational happiness.” Situational happiness is when we depend on external circumstances in order to provide us with joy and well-being. We crave our “external world” to be a certain way, and if we don’t get it then we are left disappointed and unhappy. Those who learn to cultivate emotional independence (especially dedicated meditation practitioners like Buddhist monks), find out how to find happiness that is independent of these external conditions.

Some of the most common things we become dependent on for happiness include:

  • Excessive eating.
  • Alcohol and drugs.
  • Movies, TV, music, video games, the internet, and other entertainment.
  • Sex.
  • Shopping and consumerism.
  • People.
  • Pets.
  • Wealth and money.
  • Traditions and routine.
  • Etc.

These are all desires that we can develop a near-addictive personality toward. Of course, someone can develop an addictive personality toward nearly anything, but of course that doesn’t make any of these habits necessarily bad. Only when can no longer exercise these habits in moderation, and we begin to depend on them to enjoy ourselves, do these habits turn into a problem. Then, we are emotionally dependent on them in order to live a fulfilling life.

For example, if you always need to eat McDonalds, watch videos on YouTube, play videogames, or be around Person A to feel good about yourself, then what happens when you can no longer get your fix? If you’re truly addicted, you will begin to experience withdrawals. Then, the pain and suffering you feel from not being able to satisfy all these desires becomes that much worse.

Like a junkie, you may even go through desperate and unhealthy measures to reclaim that short and temporary high. But you can’t keep chasing temporary highs all your life. Happiness needs to be rooted in something deeper, not simple sensations of pleasure and pain.

The best method I know for minimizing these desires and increasing our capacity for intrinsic happiness is meditation and the development of equanimity.

Equanimity is a non-reactive acceptance of our circumstances without judging them as necessarily “good” or “bad.” It’s usually seen as synonymous with “being calm and relaxed,” but equanimity actually penetrates deeper than that.

Instead of having our strings pulled by every little thing that enters our lives, equanimity allows us to take a step back and accept things for what they are, without always feeling like we need to “react” to something or “fix” it.

Achieving complete equanimity and acceptance is something that can probably only be achieved if you meditate for years and years, but luckily there are a few things we can do to begin experiencing the benefits of equanimity in our own lives:

  • Start meditating. Even practicing something simple and easy like the 100 Breaths Meditation can do wonders for cultivating a less reactive mindset.
  • Accept things you have no control over. We cause ourselves so much unnecessary stress by worrying about things that are outside our sphere of control. The quicker we can accept them and move on, the better off we are.
  • See the bigger picture. This is a reframe I write about a lot (most recently I mentioned it in my article “Social Anxiety and CBT“). I feel that when we put things into a “big picture perspective” we often find that the things that irritate us the most aren’t such a big deal after all.
  • Stop and take a breather. When we don’t have equanimity, we become very impulsive. We react to things without ever taking a step back and thinking about them. There’s a technique in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) called STOP that provides a great buffer between our thoughts and our actions. The more “buffer” we have between our actions, the less reactive we become.
  • Practice, practice, practice. You won’t develop an impenetrable attitude overnight. This stuff takes a lot of practice and a lot of failure. Most likely, you’ll still get frustrated at that crying baby on the bus, or when you spill your drink, or when a deadline at work begins approaching. It’s near impossible to be completely non-reactive to your circumstances, but with practice you can become less reactive – and that can make a big difference over time.

Following these simple guidelines is a great way to combat situational happiness and develop some emotional independence. By doing these things, we begin to take greater control over our internal states, and that can often be a lot easier than trying to always fulfill external desires.


Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement:


Motivated By The Taste of Success

Success


When we focus on what we have already accomplished throughout our lives, it often becomes easier to continue making progress. Our past experiences become a motivational tool. And once we get a taste of success, we develop an appetite for more.


If there is one thing I’ve learned since studying and practicing personal development, it’s that no matter where you are on this path, it is filled with many success and failures. Growth is rarely a linear process. Instead, it’s dynamic. Sometimes you’re going to see your efforts crumble right in front of your eyes, and other times you’ll see your efforts come to full fruition. Often the better you manage your failures and hold onto your successes, the more motivated you will be to continue further with your endeavors.

For example, one aspect of my life I’ve been trying to improve on is exercising more often. I haven’t become a health nut yet, but I’m starting to see improvement – and it’s motivating me to keep going. In fact, there’s been a couple times over the past month where people have commented on my “more fit” physique. I know I still have a lot more room for improvement, but it’s inspiring to get that kind of external validation because now I know that I’m doing something right.

Another thing I’ve been trying to work on more is making a viable income from The Emotion Machine. I really enjoy writing about these kinds of topics and it’s been my goal over the past two years to try and turn this into a way of making a living. For two years I wrote new content several times a week and experienced very minimal success when it came to making money; I experimented with advertising, affiliate marketing, and even trying to offer my own services, but nothing “clicked” right away. Instead there’s been a lot of trial-and-error involved, and the good news is that I’m finally beginning to see some success – and that too is motivating. I’m not making a living yet (I’m only 22 and still living with my parents), but now I at least have some money to splurge on some new clothes and music equipment. I haven’t had spending money in awhile, so it’s nice to finally look into my bank account and see something there.

Both of these “success stories” aren’t anything spectacular, but I recognize them as part of something that will continue to grow – and there is a power to that perspective.

Before I had any success with health or business, my attitude was much different. I was coming from a place of desperation. Sure, I liked exercising and working on this blog, but a part of me was dependent on seeing immediate results. I fell for the myth of overnight success, and when I wasn’t getting results right away I quickly got frustrated and started doubting myself. Luckily I remained faithful and persistent during these dark times and now I’m beginning to see it finally pay off.

And now that I’m seeing results in these domains of my life, I feel a weight beginning to lift from my shoulders. My desperation has turned into inspiration. Now I know that I can overcome obstacles. Now I know I can experience success if I really work at something. And now I also have some positive history to draw confidence from and continue to build off of.


“The reason people give up so fast is because they tend to look at how far they still have to go instead of how far they have gotten.”

Anonymous


I believe this quote really hits the crux of the message I want to send out right now. Once you begin making progress in your life you should cherish it, no matter how small or minor you think that progress is. Because reaching big goals is really nothing more than reaching a bunch of small goals over and over again. And when we recognize the value of reaching these small goals, we can motivate ourselves to accomplish some tremendous things in the long haul.


Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement: