Social Anxiety: A Modern Issue for an Ancient Brain

Articles

Written by Dr. Landon Moyers, DNP, APRN, PMHNP-BC

Consider the strange and wonderful world we live in.

Many of us are lucky enough to have what we need to survive: food, shelter, safety, and people who love us. Despite this relative security, many of us still find ourselves stuck in a cycle of social anxiety.

Social anxiety is the psychological and physiological discomfort that we feel when we are faced with potential evaluation by others. This can look like fear of meeting new people, speaking in public, or being in large crowds.

Why do humans feel strongly about what others think about us? And why do we let these feelings affect us so much that we avoid participating in the activities we love or achieving the goals we are passionate about?

The answer lies in the fact that human beings are built for connection. We are a social species that ultimately depends on group efforts, knowledge, and strength of resources for survival.

Imagine for a moment that you are living several thousand years ago. If you are like most people, you do not live in a town or city. Your social group most likely consists of 10-50 who include your immediate and extended family members.

You may occasionally meet up with other groups for weddings or rituals. It is likely that at some point, you will likely be involved in a coming-of-age ceremony or ritual as a rite of passage into adulthood, ensuring your status in the group, as well as the ability to find a mate. You have prepared for this throughout your lifetime as an event that will take place sometime just after puberty, or at the least your early twenties.

Failing this rite of passage might result in the rejection by your group, not to mention the loss of your status, the right to a mate, and the protection and support of your clan—not an ideal time to be left isolated without a social group, especially in a world of large predators, environmental exposure, and constant threats from rivals. This is the world in which the human brain developed.

Only in the last thousand to several hundred years has our world and social environment required a very different approach to life. We live next to people we hardly know. We send our children to school with hundreds (or even thousands) of fellow social competitors and we expect them to get along and learn well. We have splintered into smaller social groups or families that have much higher levels of fluidity and impermanence.

In our increasingly secular society, we have removed many of the traditional rights of passage and replaced them with an academic/career system that often does not award any level of achievement or status until our late 20s-30s. This aligns perfectly with the age groups in which social anxiety is most prevalent (ages 15-35) where it is at its worst in the early twenties and decreases as people age.

Interestingly, we are wired for anxiety because we are wired for connection. We are wired to respond to rejection or lack of status as a threat to our survival.

Today, the significance of rejection is far less and the opportunity for it is far higher. But our alarm system still says it is significant and it makes us feel terrible. The problem is that human brains have not evolved as fast as our modern world.

The ancient alarm system built into the amygdala—the feeling part of the brain—tells us we will die or lose the chance for a mate or access to resources if we are “rejected.” Our neocortex—the thinking part of the brain—however, can be used to calm our brain’s ancient structures and help us recognize that the threat is not as dangerous as it may seem.

In moments of social anxiety, taking a moment to thank your body for the natural responses it provides to your environment. Second, recognize that the threat is not as dangerous as your amygdala says it is.

Finally, take a moment to reorient yourself to the here and now. Breathe in deeply for several seconds or try to focus on and name the things you can see. Choose to move forward mindfully, with a deep respect for the past and a strong commitment to living in the present moment.


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