New Research Sheds Light on the Causes of Social Anxiety Disorder

By all accounts, Gabriel has it together. He’s smart, gregarious, and funny, lives in a beautiful home in a picturesque Los Angeles neighborhood, and has a thriving career in the arts. But things weren’t always this way.

“I knew I was different from a very early age,” he says. “I was what was described as a shy kid. But as I entered adolescence, it became clear that it was something more.” While worry and fear of certain social situations are normal and even healthy experiences, Gabriel’s worry and fear were bigger, more intense, and omnipresent. “Imagine the anxiety you feel about a huge test that could determine the course of your life and then apply it to every single social situation, both real and imagined. I lived in a constant state of that worry, regardless of whether or not the situation warranted it. And often there was no ‘situation’ to begin with, I just had a general feeling of dread of hypothetical social encounters and I would have anxiety about getting anxiety.”

By the time Gabriel was in college, his social anxiety was paralyzing. “I couldn’t have a normal social life because I would be overcome by fear; if I was invited to a party I would stay up all night sick to my stomach thinking that things were going to go wrong. I had such a fear of being called on in class and having to speak in front of others that I couldn’t concentrate on my work and skipped more classes than I attended. I failed so many classes in my sophomore year that I was called into a meeting with a guidance counselor at school, and it was during that meeting that I was first introduced to the idea that I might have Social Anxiety Disorder.

Despite the fact that social anxiety had become a ruling force in his life, Gabriel had never considered that it could be the result of a mental health disorder. Instead, he believed that his constant fear and worry were simply a matter of personal weakness. “I didn’t have a reason to have social anxiety. I didn’t have a bad childhood or mean parents or some horrific trauma in my background or anything that I believed would justify what I was experiencing. I blamed myself and felt a lot of shame. It took me a long time to understand that my anxiety wasn’t my fault and that the causes of social anxiety disorder aren’t necessarily experiential.”

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Breaking Through Self-Blame

Social Anxiety Disorder is an overwhelming and distressing psychiatric illness that affects an estimated 8% of people at some point in their lives, making it among the most common of mental health disorders. Its symptoms can severely impair social and professional function and make even everyday activities burdensome or even impossible.

Unfortunately, many people who suffer from social anxiety feel a great sense of shame about their fear and blame themselves for not being able to be “normal”; it is common to believe that social anxiety is simply a part of your personality or an embarrassing character flaw. These beliefs can be deeply damaging to your self-esteem, aggravating the feelings of inadequacy, ineptness, and inferiority that often accompany the disorder. By understanding the causes of social anxiety disorder, you can begin to break through self-blame and gain insight into the roots of your illness to form a more fully developed picture of your experiences.

New Research Explores the Roots of Social Anxiety

Although experts have have long believed that the causes of social anxiety disorder can be found in the complex interplay between biological and environmental factors, until recently, the exact role of each variable has remained largely a mystery. Now, a new study by researchers at Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) is shedding new light on the roots of this difficult disorder.

The NIPH followed over 3000 identical twins over a decade to examine how mental health disorders develop over time; by studying only identical twins, researchers were able to “see the extent to which the disorders were influenced by genetic and environmental factors.” As expected, both biology and lived experiences were found to contribute to the development of Social Anxiety Disorder. What was groundbreaking about this study is that the researchers discovered that social anxiety was less stable over time than previously assumed and genetic and environmental factors had qualitatively different effects:

Looking at the long-term risk of developing social anxiety, the risk is strongly influenced by genetic factors. This is probably because personality traits that predispose to the disorder, such as introversion and low emotional stability, are influenced by genetics. If you have both of these traits, the risk of developing social anxiety is high. However, at any particular moment, the environment will have the greatest impact on whether you have social anxiety. When researchers looked at the causes of stability and change over time, they found that the genetic risk was persistent and contributed to the stability, while the environment largely contributed to change.

In other words, social anxiety is highly heritable and while environmental factors can have significant short-term effects, genetic factors are the most important factor in long-term, persistent expressions of the disorder. As Fartein Ask Torvik, one of the study’s authors, explains, “[T]he impact of environmental events, such as being bullied or losing a job, is of limited duration. The effect of the events that cause social anxiety at one point will pass,” while genetic predisposition is more likely to lead to enduring social anxiety.

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Healing From Social Anxiety

Although the NIPH study amplifies our understanding of the role of genetics in shaping long-term experiences of Social Anxiety Disorder, these findings should not be interpreted to mean that those with genetic predisposition cannot overcome their anxiety. As Torvik says:

Even people who have had a good, secure upbringing can experience social anxiety. However, if you have an inherited risk, you can learn to defy the tendency of avoidance and know what to do if the anxiety appears. Although the genetic risk is long-lasting, it does not mean that you have to live with the symptoms. There are good treatments for social anxiety. The treatment involves exposure to the feared situations and acknowledging your anxiety.

Regardless of the causes of your social anxiety disorder, specialized, comprehensive treatment can help you take control of your symptoms via targeted emotional and behavioral interventions that give you the skills and insight to make meaningful change. Thoughtful layering of therapeutic modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and holistic therapies can give you new avenues towards healing that allow you to gain psychological stability, increase distress tolerance, and heal from overwhelming worry. For many people with social anxiety, therapy groups are one of the most significant pieces of the recovery puzzle, giving you the opportunity to face your fears within a warm, supportive, and nonjudgmental milieu. With the right care in the right environment, you can find relief from the pain of Social Anxiety Disorder and move toward a richer, more fulfilling, and happier life.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with Social Anxiety Disorder as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one on the path toward healing.