A Psychology Professor Advises Us How To Overcome Our Social Anxiety

Psychologist Fallon Goodman offers a fresh perspective on social anxiety disorder.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 11, 2021

A new article published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders makes the case that many people who suffer from social anxiety still derive a lot of pleasure from meeting new people and spending time with others — and that treatment for social anxiety disorder should focus on methods to encourage social engagement among people who have a tendency to avoid it.

I recently spoke with Fallon Goodman, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida and lead author of the paper, to discuss this research in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of social anxiety and what did you find?

A few years into my Ph.D. program, I was beyond burnout — I was a demoralized, depressed, and aimless zombie. I spent most of my waking hours working towards an unachievable endpoint ("success") and was sacrificing my relationships and health in the process. One Friday night, after a week of unfulfilling work, I decided to borrow some money (my $18K stipend living in DC wasn't cutting it) and booked a flight to the furthest place I could run to: Australia. I went alone. Thirty hours of travel later, I showed up at the airport and only then did it occur to me — I had, quite literally, zero plans. No place to stay, no planned tourist excursions. I hadn't even purchased an international phone plan. I had been too exhausted to work through logistics beyond the flight. Panic set in. After racking up roaming charges I probably couldn't afford and a taxi ride that declined my credit card (because I also failed to alert my bank I was traveling), I arrived at the only hostel in Melbourne that had a bed available that night. And this is where my true appreciation for social anxiety began.

By this point, I had spent several years studying social anxiety in children, adolescents, and adults — but to be honest, I never fully experienced it in all its terrible glory. I have my fair share of anxiety, but social anxiety was never the flavor. And then, I found myself in a new country, alone, and overcome with social anxiety. I immediately tried to figure out the social norms of the different pockets of travelers and then figure out if I fit in with them. The answer to each question was a resounding no. Was I wearing the right thing? No; it was December, so I was in winter clothes — which was inconvenient for the Australian summer. Did I have the right suitcase? No; my faded-gray broken-wheeled roller differed slightly from the Osprey backpacks of the backpackers. In every social comparison I made, I missed the mark. This was the first lesson I learned about social anxiety: the social comparisons we make when we feel socially anxious are not necessarily inaccurate.

I did in fact differ from fellow travelers in many visible ways. I soon found my way to my room — a 12-bed cinder block cube surrounded by (likely) hungover strangers. I wheeled myself over to my top bunk. Now what? The second lesson of social anxiety: it feels paralyzing.

Should I try to make friends? Everyone was sleeping. Where could I meet people? I had no idea where I was. What do people even do when they travel? It was Tuesday morning. I spun my wheels for what seemed like days. Once my 11 new roommates began trickling out, I knew it was time to act. I put on the only short sleeve shirt in my roller (which I strategically shoved in a corner to hide) and headed to the hostel bar.

Lesson #3 of social anxiety: "Liquid courage" is tempting. Alcohol can quickly reduce anxiety and increase sociability — changes that might be appealing in stressful social situations. However, this pattern can quickly be reinforced and become problematic; people with social anxiety disorder are 2-3 times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol use disorder. While pondering the reinforcement mechanisms of anxiety disorders at this hostel bar — alone, jetlagged, and more socially anxious than I've ever been — I arrived at the final lesson. Managing anxiety is a tradeoff. My social anxiety was not going to disappear any time soon. In fact, it would probably get worse once I started speaking.

So, I had a decision point. I could:

  1. Retreat to my room to avoid further embarrassment and insecurity and spend the rest of the trip alone, which would decrease my anxiety in the short-term
  2. Or, approach someone and try to make a friend

Every hard-wired anxiety fiber of my being screamed 1, but I mustered up the courage for 2. I knew that rejection lurked around the corner, but so did an opportunity for friendships and much-needed pleasure. I also knew that when I finally introduced myself to the group of friends in the corner of the hostel, I would continue to feel anxious. Social anxiety doesn't magically disappear. But I trusted that this anxiety could also coexist with happiness and that staying in my room avoiding other people would not be as enjoyable.

And this is exactly what we found in our study. Adults diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD) reported feeling higher positive emotions when they were with other people when they were alone. That is, people with a disorder defined by social fears were happier when they were socializing — the very source of their fear.

Can you give a brief description of what social anxiety is and how many people are affected by it?

Social anxiety is a common psychological experience that involves worrying that other people will judge you harshly and reject you. However, while feeling socially anxious is a common experience, some people experience intense and persistent social anxiety that interferes with multiple areas of their life. People with social anxiety disorder fear and avoid various types of social situations, such as talking in small groups or speaking with a stranger. Prevalence rates suggest that in the United States, about 12% of Americans — roughly 40 million people based on current population estimates — will be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. The global prevalence is around 4%, which is roughly 300 million people! Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone struggling with social anxiety?

Social interactions can be both anxiety-provoking and enjoyable. Feeling socially anxious does not mean that you will not or cannot enjoy the company of others. Anxiety and enjoyment often coexist. In both studies, we found that people with SAD socialized similar amounts during the study period as adults without mental illness. People with SAD were socializing, and when they did, they often enjoyed it. Not all social interactions are uniformly stressful. It is important to take a self-inventory of the social situations that elicit happiness and actively pursue them. Other people are our greatest resource, so foster the relationships you have. For the more anxiety-provoking situations, the ratio of enjoyment to anxiety will decrease with practice.

Do you have any other words of wisdom for socially anxious people?

Overcoming social anxiety is not about preventing rejection or eliminating anxiety. If your goal is to feel zero anxiety, then you'll have a tough time being a human! Instead, overcoming social anxiety is about developing the skills and confidence to manage anxiety when it comes and live the life you want to live. What is most important to you? What would your ideal life look like, and how is social anxiety getting in the way of that ideal? You can move closer to that ideal by fostering social courage — pursuing experiences because they are important to you and trusting that you can manage any anxiety that comes up when you pursue them. The more you lead with social courage, the easier and more enjoyable social experiences come.

Is it possible for someone to overcome social anxiety entirely?

If there's anything that psychologists have learned in the past century, it's how to treat anxiety. Our treatments aren't perfect and the same treatments don't work for everyone, but they tend to be very effective. People with social anxiety will likely feel a lot better after a few sessions of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The key ingredient for anxiety treatment is exposure. To overcome social anxiety, a person must be willing to try out different social situations, even when — especially when — rejection is likely.

Most humans will feel rejected at many points in their lives; it's an unfortunate part of humans existing in social groups. Part of overcoming social anxiety is coping with rejection when it inevitably occurs. Coping with rejection might involve learning tools to cope with embarrassment or shame, such as sharing about the rejection with a friend. It might also involve being realistic about why the rejection occurs. When people with social anxiety feel rejected, they tend to attribute it to some perceived deficiency or flaw. For example, maybe someone never returned your texts after a first date, and you believe it's because you are not attractive, accomplished, or interesting enough. You convince yourself that your date saw this gaping flaw and didn't want to see you again because of it.

If this is true, this is a painful truth to accept! And to be frank, a person will likely never know how accurate their attribution is. But, in therapy, we work to create more realistic attributions of rejection. Was it really that you are not attractive enough to be loved by someone, or might there be a more reasonable explanation like it was bad timing or your personalities didn't click? Regardless of the attribution the person ultimately lands on, the key is building acceptance of it and moving forward with social goals.

What are the upsides, if any, to social anxiety?

Social anxiety is designed to protect us from rejection. When we feel socially anxious, we become hyper-focused on how we are appearing to others. To maximize the likelihood of making a good impression, we try to fit the norms and expectations of a given social interaction. Fitting in is a good thing because humans are social; we exist in social groups and rely on each other for everyday tasks. And rejection is painful! Someone doesn't return your messages after a first date; you are rejected from your dream job; you aren't invited to a long-time friend's wedding; you are bullied. Rejection is aversive, and humans spend a surprising amount of energy trying to avoid it.

Social anxiety tries to help us alter our behavior to avoid rejection. It also signals to us that we care about being accepted. If being accepted into a certain group or situation isn't important, then we probably won't feel socially anxious about it. Social anxiety can act as a gauge to figure out if a situation or relationship is worth investing energy into.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

We did not examine demographic differences in this research program, but based on existing evidence, we might expect women to have more elevated social anxiety, on average, than men. Research on social anxiety across different identities is sorely needed, especially among minoritized communities. For example, people in the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionately rejected, and these aversive experiences might shape their expectations for future social interactions — including feeling more socially anxious and more worried about rejection. Early and repeated rejection experiences also put people at risk for a host of psychological difficulties, including social anxiety but also depression and suicidality. My lab is conducting some of this work now, but our field would greatly benefit from a comprehensive understanding of social anxiety in groups who are vulnerable to social rejection.

What other personality traits are related to social anxiety?

People with social anxiety tend to be higher in introversion, but social anxiety and introversion are distinct. Social anxiety refers to people's social fears, whereas introversion refers to people's social preferences. As we found in this study, people with social anxiety experience higher positive emotions and lower negative emotions when they are socializing than when alone. We might expect that for people who are highly introverted, they would prefer being alone to socializing. People with social anxiety also tend to be higher in negative emotionality ("neuroticism"), which is characterized by frequent negative emotions that feel difficult to manage. However, neuroticism is associated with most mental illnesses, so it is best considered a general risk factor for mental illness rather than a personality trait specific to social anxiety.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve social anxiety?

One stereotype of someone with social anxiety is a person who would rather be alone in their bedroom than interacting with the world. This is simply not true. People with social anxiety are not devoid of the basic desire for human connection; they just have trouble obtaining it in certain situations or with certain people. If we start from that assumption, then we can reduce problematic myths about social anxiety — such as conflating it with a preference to be alone — which ultimately reduces stigma and barriers to accessing treatment.