It can feel strange to think about our brain lying to us, but that is often what happens when we are dealing with social anxiety disorder.
In the throws of social anxiety, our brain takes in information and skews it based on a number of negative assumptions, interpretations, and opinions. Often, this information isn’t accurate. Other times, it is based on experiences that happened months, years, or even decades ago. No matter how far these experiences exist in our history, they can continue to influence our perception of the present. For those with social anxiety, this outdated data can severely impact functioning and can interfere with efforts to make and keep relationships.
A key component to effectively navigate social situations is being able to update our information about another person or event as more data becomes available. For example, let’s say that when I meet someone for the first time, I find them outspoken and crass. But then later, during subsequent encounters, I start to appreciate their sense of humor and enjoy my time with them. In this way, our perceptions can change as more data becomes available.
However, research tells us that for socially anxious individuals, this updating of information doesn’t always happen the same way. Rather, research suggests that once a negative impression is formed, it is hard for the socially anxious person to update their data and form a new belief. Some research even suggests that socially anxious people learn negative information easier than they learn positive information, making it even harder to form a more neutral or positive impression.
To combat this, we have to take proactive steps to challenge the brain and update the data we use to evaluate situations. Here are some ways to challenge the outdated data in your brain:
One of the biggest mistakes we make is to fail to give our brain the opportunity to update its data. This can happen when we avoid certain situations or engage in significant safety behaviors that prevent us from fully interacting with that situation. When we engage in the same situation repeatedly (or a similar one), it allows us the opportunity to collect new data and have experiences that differ from that first negative encounter. In order to more neutrally engage in these experiences, we can use mindfulness and other methods described below.
Track Present Data
Sometimes it can be really helpful to keep a log noting what we predict will happen and what the actual outcome was. This type of log can help our brain process how that situation went differently than we expected. It can also help us fact check if the negative predictions we made happened or not.
Check the Facts
Similarly, it is best to stick to the facts of the situation and keep our interpretations, opinions, and assumptions as neutral as possible. It can even be helpful to ask a friend or another trusted individual what their impression was of the situation to see if it matches our own. If we don’t have a trusted individual to consult, we can think about what we would say to a friend going through the same situation. Would we load up all the negatives to that friend or try to encourage them through support and positivity?
Ultimately, these skills can be very beneficial to changing the way we cognitively process the situations that are skewed by our anxiety. However, it can be really challenging to do this on our own. Sometimes it really helps to work with a trained professional. Therapists who are certified in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are the best bet for the treatment of social anxiety. CBT is widely considered the gold standard of treatment for social anxiety. With the right therapist, we can learn to apply these principles and free ourselves from the trap of outdated data.
Related Blog Articles
The following NSAC blog posts contain more information about some of the topics discussed in this post:
Interested in learning more about the science behind this post? Check out the following article that is referenced in this post:
Zabag et al. (2023). You never get a chance to undo a negative first impression: Social anxiety is associated with impaired positive updating of social information. Personality and Individual Differences, 203.