The way in which people communicate has changed drastically over recent history, and will likely to continue to do so at a rapid pace. It is difficult to remember a time without Facebook, Twitter, text messages, or even e-mails. How did we communicate with each other before then? Oh, yes, we spoke to each other in person. I remember now!
This makes me wonder how all of these different forms of technology affect human interactions, but more importantly to this article, social anxiety. Before getting into this, though, it would be helpful to understand the role of our behaviors in developing and maintaining social anxiety. According to cognitive behavioral theory, social anxiety develops and is maintained by a combination of anxious thinking and behavioral avoidances.
What is behavioral avoidance? Well, an obvious example would be not attending a social event due to a fear of being negatively judged. But what about going, only because someone you know will be there, or having a drink before? What’s so bad about that? These are what we call “safety behaviors” and the problem with those is that they just serve to reinforce the social anxiety. If I fear going to a party will result in people ignoring me, then maybe I go with someone that I know to make sure I will have someone to talk to. Then, if through the course of the night people do talk to me or us, I attribute the success of the evening to having my friend with me, not due to my own ability to socialize. Or, if I have a glass of wine before I go to feel calmer, I would likely attribute any success (or just feeling able to cope) to the wine. Either way, I’ve not learned anything new to challenge my social anxiety.
So what does this have to do with technology-assisted communication? In some ways, texting, e-mailing, or otherwise messaging people can serve as a safety behavior. Have you ever texted someone or e-mailed someone to avoid having to have a live conversation? I’m sure that most of us have. We can carefully edit exactly what to say (avoiding fumbling over our words or saying something “stupid”) and we can’t be judged based on our appearance. The problem is that when we continually feel relief from anxiety by our choice to text instead of speaking to someone live, we become less confident in our abilities to have conversations (and likely more socially anxious).
The news isn’t all bad, though. For some people with severe social anxiety, using technology to begin to reach out to others may be a helpful stepping stone in their treatment. Finding support groups online or an online therapist to begin working on social anxiety can be helpful resources. Then, they can build up their skill set and confidence in order to interact with people live on the phone, then even in person.
It is important to consider the implications of our communication choices and to be aware of what is driving our choices. Are we choosing to e-mail because the conversation seems to anxiety provoking? Well, maybe that is a good time to choose the conversation and to challenge those anxious thoughts!
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