Where Do Our Fears Come From?

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear

H.P. Lovecraft

As you know, fear plays a big role in social anxiety, so lets examine this topic a little more deeply. As I’ve stated in other articles on this site, you must first understand social anxiety and the mechanisms behind it before you can overcome it. Fear is ingrained in us and it stems from biological factors as well as psychological factors.

Biological Factors – Natural Selection And Genetics

Throughout our species history, fear has helped us to survive. Back in the caveman days, there were a lot more threats to our survival, so fear played an important role. Fear helped us protect ourselves when we sensed real and immediate danger. Fear is actually a good thing when seen from this perspective.

Although our environment has changed a lot since the caveman days, our brains have not. Some of us still have a lot of fear even when there is no real danger/threat (an imagined fear).

Social anxiety can also be seen as a good thing when you consider how it has helped us to survive and evolve. Again, back in the caveman days, we depended on those around us a lot. If you got kicked out of your tribe, you wouldn’t fair very well alone in the wilderness. So, from that standpoint, it is believed that social anxiety may have developed over time in order to help us survive.

Today, we learn at a very early age that we need get along with others. We depend on a lot of people in order to survive. We understand that it is a good thing to be liked because if everyone dislikes us, we may end up unemployed, alone, and so on. We have a deep need to be liked because we are social creatures.

So, anxiousness can help us recognize how our behavior is affecting those around us. We want to pay attention to what we are doing and saying so that we don’t ruin relationships or get into trouble. I’m sure you can see by now that social anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it helps us be more considerate, polite, and offend people less. It becomes a bad thing when it gets too powerful and takes over every aspect of our lives.

People with more than a normal amount of social anxiety do not have a disease, they simply have too much of a good thing. As with anything, too much of a good thing can lead to the opposite effect. When social anxiety becomes too overwhelming, that is when it has actually has the opposite result.

For example, let’s say you have severe anxiety at work meetings because you don’t want to say something stupid. So, you don’t say anything at all. Not saying anything at all may actually lead to people thinking negatively about your competence – the exact opposite of what you’re aiming for by not talking. Ironic, isn’t it?

Genetics also plays a big role in social anxiety. Studies show that social anxiety runs in families. You are ten times more likely to have social anxiety disorder if you have a close relative with generalized anxiety disorder. That’s insane, right? Specific types of anxiety (social anxiety while talking on the phone for example) are not as likely to run in families.

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized as having anxiety about almost everything, while a specific type of anxiety may only deal with one type of situation.

If someone in your family has anxiety, you may be more likely to have it too, but this doesn’t mean that you will definitely have it or that you can’t overcome it. It just means that you are more susceptible to it. How you deal with it defines how it will affect your life.

While genetics can play a role, your experiences and environment play an even bigger role in how we behave and perform in certain situations. For example, our genetics determine much about our physical bodies. Some of us are better at running because of our genetics, but that doesn’t mean that those of us that aren’t great at it can’t improve upon the cards we are dealt. We can certainly take it upon our selves to train hard and become better.

Social anxiety is the same way. Some people are born with very little anxiety and they do great interacting with other people and performing. It comes naturally for them. Others of us are born with a tendency to be shy and anxious. Is it fair? Not really. But that doesn’t mean we can’t train and develop our selves to become better.

Lastly, let us touch on neurotransmitters. Those of us with social anxiety have a highly active amygdala. The amygdala (very primitive part of the brain) is the part of the limbic system and it fires up when we experience fear.

The good news is that our brains have plasticity, which means we can change them – we can change our thinking patterns and the way we think about things (even the things that scare us). This is why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been so successful. CBT rewires our brain so that we no longer fear the activities we once did. CBT has been proven to reduce the amount of activity in the amygdala, so we know it works.

Psychological Factors – Experiences, Behaviors, Beliefs, and Learning

As mentioned earlier, our genes do contribute to our social anxiety, but so do our beliefs and experiences. The things we experienced as we were growing up had a huge impact on us.

A lot of our attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and tendencies are learned from our parents, friends, co-workers, and so on. We learn to fear certain things by observing others, by direct experience, or by other avenues of information (reading, hearing, etc).

Observation – So much of what we learn growing up is based off of simply observing someone. If we see someone that displays fearful behaviors to a certain situation, we may also adopt the same attitude. Or if we see someone else get ripped apart in a social situation (made fun of, teased, etc.), we may also fear that type of event in the future.

Think about your family, friends, and close co-workers. Think about their behaviors. Are any of your family members or friends very quiet or shy (now or in the past)? Did you ever witness them getting teased or criticized?

Did you ever witness someone at work become fearful, shy, or anxious while in a meeting or giving a presentation? Is it possible that you may have simply adopted their attitudes and beliefs or became fearful of certain situations because you saw how bad someone else got ridiculed? How has observational learning contributed to your social anxiety?

Direct experience – Another way we learn is by direct experience. Have you ever been teased, bullied, or done something very embarrassing in a social situation? Did you have teachers, parents, employers, of friends that were very critical of you? Think back and identify if there are any situations you can think of. Is it possible that some of the fears you have adopted stem from these direct experiences?

We like to protect ourselves from future harm, but sometimes that means avoiding situations forever because we had one bad experience. How have some of your direct experiences contributed to your social anxiety? Think long and hard on this.

Other avenues of learning – Besides direct experience and observation, we also learn by reading or hearing something. Think about all the things you have read and watched on tv that may have contributed to your social anxiety in some way. Think about the media, magazines, and advertisers.

Advertisers are there to do one thing – make you feel inadequate so they can sell you something to fill that hole. We all see it on the tv – your image is everything. Seeing these ads day in and day out will mess with your mind and sense of worth, so it’s no surprise that we are constantly feeling like we are not good enough.

With the way the media and advertisers are going, I believe that social anxiety is only going to get worse in the coming years.

Or maybe your parents or friends always told you that you must make a perfect impression every time you meet someone.

How have these other avenues of information contributed to your social anxiety?

Another psychological factor that may contribute to social anxiety are our beliefs. Again, we may have learned these beliefs through various methods and people (friends, family, co-workers, etc.).

Those of us with social anxiety have some core beliefs that need to be re-evaluated. By changing our anxious beliefs, we can reduce our social anxiety. Let’s look at some of the findings that recent research has shown:

Socially anxious people attach a negative stigma to social situations (more so than less anxious people). They believe that there is a lot to lose and the likelihood of a negative social situation is high.

Socially anxious people are overly critical about their performance or interactions. Even if someone seems uninterested in a conversation (maybe because they are just sleepy), they will believe it is their fault.

Socially anxious people are more likely to interpret something that is neutral (a blank stare, un returned phone call) negatively.

Socially anxious people focus on perceived social threats rather than the non threatening. If you simply shift your focus from focusing on the perceived threats to other things, you will make great improvements.

Socially anxious people overestimate how much someone else can see them shake, blush, or sweat. Often times it is greatly amplified in our own minds.

Socially anxious people think that their physical symptoms (blushing, shaking, sweating) will be perceived with extreme prejudice by others. They believe that others will see them as weak or as having a mental disorder.

As you can see, socially anxious people have some unbalanced and unrealistic beliefs. Our beliefs shape our lives and our reality, so if they are in alignment with any of the above, they need to be checked. They need to be looked at, challenged, and replaced with more realistic thoughts.

Lastly, our behavior is a psychological factor that may contribute to our social anxiety. The three components of social anxiety are our behaviors, thoughts, and physical feelings and they all feed off of each other.

The behavior of avoidance makes complete sense for those with social anxiety because we simply don’t want to deal with the feelings that social anxiety brings. We would rather just distract ourselves or get far away from the situation. This is especially true in the case of panic attacks. Panic attacks can feel absolutely terrible, so it is understandable that we do everything we can to avoid the situations that bring on these feelings.

Avoidance seems like the logical thing to do, but unfortunately, it is not. Avoidance only makes social anxiety worse because you are avoiding that situation which only makes the fear stronger over the long run. Even though it sounds counter intuitive, exposure to feared scenarios is actually the right approach to take.

Like the old saying goes – when you fall off a horse, the best thing you can do is get back up on it as soon as possible. The longer you wait and think about it, the more likely you are to build that fear up into a monster. The sooner you confront your fear, the small and easier it is to beat.

Next, let’s look at the three components of social anxiety.

2 thoughts on “Where Do Our Fears Come From?”

  1. Pingback: Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness Guide – Wisdom For Life

  2. Pingback: Fear, Panic, Worry – Wisdom For Life

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