social anxiety study

New Research into Social Anxiety

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is basically an extreme fear of social situations. There are many examples: eating out in public, working while being observed, talking on the phone in public, resisting a salesperson, entering a room where people are already seated, conversing with people of authority, and public speaking just to name a few. Everyone has certain things that set them off. Let’s touch on public speaking quickly.


We all (even people without social anxiety) get nervous before a speech, but those of us with social anxiety are nervous on another level altogether! Even if we are just doing introductions at our workplace, the anxiety is through the roof. Our hearts feels like they are going to beat out of our chest, we may sweat like crazy, etc. When we deliver the speech or a very brief introduction about ourselves, the words may not come out right and we will tremble with fear. We dread the speech days or weeks before and then after, we replay it in our minds over and over looking for every little thing we did wrong.


Social anxiety isn’t a fear of people per say, it’s a fear of social situations. Those of us who have experienced social anxiety go to great lengths to avoid any social situation that we deem a threat. Not every social activity is avoidable, so you shouldn’t go through life playing this game. It can’t be won. At some point, you will have to get up and introduce yourself, eat in public, or go to a meeting and actually talk! Additionally, living with this looming fear stalls careers and leads to a very unfulfilling life. You don’t want to live a life controlled by fear. You will end up on your death bed with a lot of regret.


New Research on Social Anxiety Disorder

According to Harvard psychologists Alexandre Heeren and Richard McNally (2018), social anxiety disorder is “an emergent phenomenon that arises from causal interactions among symptoms.” What does that mean? They are stating that different situations (meeting new people or making eye contact, for example) cluster together forming the nodes of a network. These nodes might be connected to other nodes like calling someone you don’t know or going to a party that has a lot of strangers.


This network is vast and complex and different for everyone. You may fear certain things, but for someone else, they may fear test taking or returning things to the store, and their nodes and network would look completely different. Heeren and Mcnally believe that traditional psychiatry views on social anxiety disorder may be outdated and this new model should be explored. The old models state that you either have social anxiety disorder or you don’t or that it is on a continuum (the more social the event, the more you fear it). This is not the case though because everyone’s anxiety comes in different forms and depends on the situation.


When I had social anxiety disorder, I didn’t fear parties (a highly social event), but I feared meetings and having to speak in a room with just a few people in it. It’s not a continuum per say, it’s more like points connecting related symptoms in straight lines. The more interconnected symptoms you have, the more severe your social anxiety disorder. If you just have a couple things you dislike (and they are not really related), then you may just be shy and don’t actually have social anxiety disorder.


Social Anxiety Research Conclusion

Heeren and McNally summarize their study as follows: “the chief difference between a person with SAD and a shy person without the disorder is that the probability of fearing (and avoiding) one situation more strongly predicts fearing (and avoiding) another situation” in someone with social anxiety disorder.

Ok, so how can you benefit from this newfound knowledge?


This topic is not very well understood by most doctors, and more research needs to be done, but it’s great to see that progress is being made.


Based on the information from this new model, you should target your most central nodes of fear and avoidance. It’s like attacking the headquarters of a base – you disrupt the entire network. A lot of people with SAD are fearful of strangers… Stranger danger!



If this is you, instead of working on public speaking, work on the root of the problem, which would be learning to be comfortable with meeting and interacting with new people. Once you target this central node, it may have a cascade effect on the other interrelated nodes.


Heeren, A., & McNally, R. J. (2018). Social anxiety disorder as a densely interconnected network of fear and avoidance for social situations. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 42(1), 103-113. doi:10.1007/s10608-017-9876-3

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