What causes social anxiety?

Social anxiety usually begins with feeling unsafe. This can come on slowly over months or years, or follow an event like a big loss or a situation that leads to escalating stress, but why?

At our most basic, we are primates, hard-wired for social groups. We need to belong to a group and we need to know our place in it. Emotions such as guilt and shame, pride and rejection, have evolved to moderate our behaviours. The purpose of this? So we know when we have harmed the group or an individual in the group and can then act to do something about it. We also desire approval from our group, it provides us with safety, belonging and a mate. The belonging ensures our survival because we believe that there are others looking out for us, who will protect us.

But we are not a small group of apes sitting in a few trees anymore. We don’t belong just by being born into a group and, not all of us are lucky enough to have a group that provides safety. There are so many ways to moderate our behaviour, that there are an equal number of ways to feel as though we have done something so wrong, that we may not be offered acceptance.

The result -The group feels hostile; our very survival feels endangered. We adapt, we find ways of smoothing over anything that may eject us from the group. We smooth over conflicts, we moderate our behaviour to ‘fit in’. We find ways to feel accepted. If we can’t, we withdraw, we isolate ourselves because it feels safer and less painful.

We adapt using the information handed to us, firstly at home with our first group, later on at school which is usually our second group. When the system breaks down, our guilt, our shame, our fear of not belonging, becomes attached to thoughts and beliefs.

The upshot of this? Our anxiety kicks in, instead of offering us what we need to moderate our behaviour to fit in with the group, if floods us with too many reasons to be afraid of our group.

Simplified it may look something like this –

  • There’s something wrong with me = I don’t belong, the group won’t protect me
  • I’m hard work = I must have no needs or the group will eject me
  • I’m not good enough = I have nothing to offer the group, they will eject me
  • I’m weak = The group will cut me loose

In our case, society is the group. outside is our tree, and avoidance is our solution.