Enforced lockdowns and splintered communities are not the only factors that lead to loneliness. There can be internal processes that prevent us from connecting with others too; one of which is social anxiety.
Over many years of working with clients I’ve seen the high price paid by those who have social anxiety. Often their perfectionism and high standards (which are strongly correlated with social anxiety) make connecting to others at best tiring, at worst, debilitating and lead to isolation and collapse.
Social anxiety describes a persistent fear and worry about what other people will think of you. Everyone has this to some degree; it's beneficial from an evolutionary perspective as social connection within our community is key to our survival and wellbeing. However, this psychological process can become out of control when the benefits of socialising with others are outbalanced by the time spent over-analysing or re-playing conversations and events in peoples’ heads. In these instances, social situations lose their reward and when it becomes too exhausting to connect with others it's tempting, and appears easier, to withdraw into ourselves. Reduced opportunities for connection can therefore become a distressing vicious cycle.
The pandemic has brought this to a head for many. While some people may have embraced social distancing and lockdowns, it has also triggered social anxiety for many who were not previously struggling in this area. We can get out of practice in the skills necessary for connecting with others and may require a re-training of our social muscle. It may take time to get back to the way we were.
It's therefore timely that Mental Health Week focuses on loneliness. It's not a shameful word, rather it's a very real human emotion. By naming loneliness, it becomes less threatening and the actions we need to take to counter it become clearer. And it’s vital that we tackle loneliness because it can have a detrimental effect on our physical and mental health.
Studies suggest that loneliness leads to increased depression and anxiety, as well as physical responses such as raised blood pressure, lower immune functioning, heart disease and cognitive decline. It's been suggested that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%.
As Stephanie and John Cacioppo, who've researched this area for many years, state in their Evolutionary Theory of Loneliness (2018) ‘Loneliness evolved like any other form of pain. It is an aversive state that has evolved as a signal to change behaviour, very much like hunger, thirst or physical pain, to motivate us to renew the connections we need to survive and prosper’.
What could help
So, what can we do to help those who struggle with social anxiety? Here are some tips that might help your clients, and you, if you’ve become stuck in hermit-like habits:
- don’t avoid social situations. Re-connect to others by taking small but manageable steps. Like a bear cub leaving their den for the first time, breaking ourselves in gently is key to building lasting change. Keeping a diary of these small steps may help to keep hold of the positives
- embrace imperfections. No relationship or social interaction is perfect. Accept that times of stilted conversations, silence or even outward signs of anxiety (such as blushing or tripping over our words) are normal. We're all human and need to embrace ourselves with the compassion we afford others
- know that others have fears and worries as well. The people around you are probably more caught up in their own issues and thoughts than thinking about whether or not you look anxious
- focus on connecting outwards, rather than over-analysing inwards. Noticing what others are saying and paying attention to what's happening in your surroundings can distract from a negative inner dialogue. Also engaging in altruistic activities, such as community projects, can provide a sense of belonging
- there is a difference between perceived and objective loneliness, in that we can have many people around us but still feel lonely. It's the quality of relationships that can help and investing in these is worth our time. Remember, it's fine to only have a few of these good quality relationships
- sometimes people with social anxiety look for clues in the other person’s words or behaviours to check that they are doing things 'right’. However, research suggests that loneliness can lead to misreading others and alienation can make us feel under attack where this is not the other person’s intention. If in doubt, ask. Be clear about what you need to reduce misunderstandings
- in the same way that you would tone and strengthen other muscles, think of your social skills as something that need exercising. Taking everyday opportunities to connect can help – a chat at the checkout of the supermarket, rather than using the self-service tills or smiling at someone when out for a walk. You never know, it might just make their day as well as yours
Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of BACP. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.