Social Anxiety – Flight, Fight and Freeze (with some baseball and raccoons thrown in for good measure)

Katie Park
Katie Park
I know I have not been posting as much as I should but I’m in a fantasy baseball league. The play-offs and final, along with a few other life events, took up my time over the last three weeks. You’ll be happy to know ….or not, depending on who you are….that I won the Championship.

My 10 dollar trophy is on its way to my home.

Yes. That 10 bucks included shipping.

My crisis right now involves making a decision to hold onto Andrew Cashner for next year.  He was boss last week and racked up close to 80 points-sorely needed because I had to beat the league ninja without Jered Weaver who was scratched from his start after the rosters were submitted.

Onto social anxiety…

Social anxiety manifests itself across three reactions that are biologically hardwired. All of us are programmed, on some level, to fight, flight or freeze in the face of danger. This is important to know if you have social anxiety because the problem isn’t so much the reaction – it’s more the perception.  The reaction itself is quite natural in the face of real immediate danger – your body is doing what it’s designed to do.  How you valuate the danger associated with social situations and how you’ve reinforced your body’s response to this danger is the real issue.

When an individual with social anxiety is about to enter or finds themselves in a social situation, there are a bunch of alarms that go off that create a chain reaction.  The alarms are usually cognitive distortions that over-value the probability that something bad will happen and/or maximize the impact of a mistake or negative event that occurs in a social situation.

Examples include a person believing that they will come across as stupid and become the “talk of the party” before they even enter the room or someone who feels they became the “talk of the party” as a result of not being able to contribute to a discussion about the relationship between physics and macramé.

I thought macramé was some sort of pasta dish until about three weeks ago.  Seriously – you think you have problems?

With folks who have experienced significant trauma or have had bad experiences in social settings, sensory input can be the catalyst to the negative thinking – if it smells like, looks like, feels like it did then, we react as if it is happening now.

Being that the social situation is framed as a threat – a danger- the body responds the way it would respond to any danger; by biologically preparing a person to address the threat.  This biological response includes  increased sweating, heart rate, blood flow redistribution, muscle tension and changes in breathing; to name a few.  These changes are designed to make you battle ready regardless of whether you choose to run, fight or play dead.

So, although there are no genetically altered super raccoons looking to make you their next meal, your body is acting like there are.  Because of the disconnect between how your body is reacting to the threat and your understanding of the threat, these changes can be confusing and frightening. The confusion around the biological response actually works to maintain or increase the biological response.

As a result of the discomfort, the individual with social anxiety responds to the biology in ways that are consistent with the biology.  One typical response is avoidance of social situations altogether which makes the problem worse because, over time, the only frame of reference becomes what a person believes will happen instead of an actual event.

This is what we professionals refer to as a “pain-in-the-ass” cycle.

Unfortunately, one of the few ways to improve social anxiety involves exposing yourself to social situations over and over…..and over again; incorporating coping skills, a few tools and reasonable narratives. Last month I wrote a quick post on how folks can go about doing this, so if you’re interested in learning more you may want to check it out (link below). If the social anxiety is the result of a historical event, therapy can help you address that content through some form of exposure therapy.

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