How Does Avoidance Impact Individuals with Social Anxiety?
Jamie arrives early to school and parks near the back entrance. He walks quickly toward his classroom, which he knows is about 30 steps once he enters the building. He counts each step, staring down at his feet, hoping no one will see him. He makes it to the empty classroom and sits in the front row. He opens his book to “study” while other students start to file in. As they chatter, he anxiously waits for the teacher to start class, but also dreads that he will be called on. Jamie shrinks down in his seat and avoids eye contact with the teacher. He knows as long as he looks busy, she will leave him alone. He wishes he could be invisible.
Jamie’s story is a very common occurrence for individuals with social anxiety. In opposition to many of his peers, he wants to be as far away from the spotlight as possible. He plans ahead to avoid high traffic times in the hallways, is always early to make sure he does not draw attention to himself arriving late, and sits in the front to avoid eye contact and interactions with others. While Jamie is a kind, creative, and funny person, he greatly fears being judged, embarrassed, or rejected. In order to reduce the likelihood of this happening, Jamie avoids.
Avoidance is considered a form of negative reinforcement. When Jamie stays away from feared social interactions he actually feels a sense of relief or reduction in his anxiety. When he avoids small talk with his peers, he also avoids the thing he fears the most, being rejected. Since this strategy is successful, he will keep doing it. So his avoidance behavior is considered to be negatively reinforced as his behavior is strengthened by removing a negative outcome. The Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale is a useful assessment to help determine your level of social fear and avoidance.
Not surprisingly, avoidance is used by anxious individuals all of the time. However, the long-term consequences of the avoidance are not always recognized. First, Jamie is becoming more and more fearful of these situations over time, not less. Every time he avoids a social situation, his brain learns that those situations were threats he needed to protect himself from. This means he will have to be even more diligent and cautious in order to stay safe.
Second, avoidance is pulling Jamie further and further away from what he actually wants. Jamie wants to be liked. He wants to have close friends. He wants to be a journalist. But avoidance keeps him from these opportunities and experiences. Jamie has declined social invitations, struggled academically because he was afraid to ask clarifying questions, and decided not to apply for internships. His fear has been his obstacle, not his actual skills and abilities. More often than not, individuals with social anxiety are highly conflicted between protecting themselves from evaluation and living the life they want to live. We also know those with social anxiety are at increased risk of depression and substance abuse.
The good news is social anxiety is not a fixed trait, it is a cycle being reinforced by avoidance behavior. When the avoidance behavior decreases, our brains are able to learn that these situations are less threatening than previously thought. Jamie can hold his head high in the hallway. He can have relationships. He can be a journalist. All of these things are possible when fear is no longer making all of the decisions.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder focuses on altering the fear cycle. It is an effective treatment completed in both individual and group formats. The focus of treatment is on challenging thoughts related to social evaluation as well as reducing avoidance behaviors. With practice, socially anxious individuals can start to do the things they have always wanted to do.
Check out our upcoming group Living Fully with Social Anxiety (Ages 16-25)
Eng, W., Roth, D.A., & Heimberg, R.G. (2001). Cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 15, 311-319.
Liebowitz, M.R. (1987). Social phobia. Modern Problems of Pharmacopsychiatry, 22, 141-173.