Social Anxiety, why it happens and how to deal with it

Social Anxiety, why it happens and how to deal with it

Social Anxiety, why it happens and how to deal with it 

We all know the feeling of anxiety, don’t we? That sudden tightness in your chest or the inexplicable jitters that come on like a caffeine overdose. But why is anxiety such a common experience?

The Unseen Predator: Anxiety’s Evolutionary Tale

Once upon a time, when early hominids roamed the earth, their survival hinged on razor-sharp reflexes and an impeccable sense of danger. The fight or flight response, fuelled by neurotransmitters like noradrenaline, prepared our ancestors to either battle fierce predators or flee them, their brains honed in on threats with laser focus, relegating all non-essential sensory input to the background.

Anxiety in the Concrete Jungle 

Fast forward to modern times, and the predators have morphed into deadlines, social gatherings, and perpetual pings from our smartphones. The sabre-toothed tigers of the past are nowhere to be seen, yet our neurological alarm systems fire off as if they're right in front of us. This ancestral gift, so crucial in a world of physical peril, now manifests as social anxiety, generalised anxiety disorders, and panic attacks—our modern minds wrestling with misplaced evolutionary coding.

When social anxiety or a panic attack strikes, the brain's fear circuits activate without any actual physical threat. We’re hijacked by our nervous system. It's neurologically like an epileptic seizure, only it occurs within the fear pathway rather than the one that controls motor function. This neurological misfire can leave us fixated on worries, our mental focus narrowing until nothing else seems to exist except the perceived threat.

Anxiety and Alcohol 

The anxiety response explains why so many find solace in alcohol at social events. Alcohol acts as a dampener on this archaic alert system, reducing the anxiety that our brains have not quite learned to modulate effectively in everyday non-life-threatening scenarios. For many it becomes a crutch, leading to a cycle of dependence as they seek to quell the incessant anxiety that should not be there in the first place.

Noradrenaline: Your brain’s starting gun 

Noradrenaline, the neurotransmitter behind the fight or flight response, doesn't just prepare our muscles for action. It also elevates our heart rate, increases blood pressure, and opens up our airways to ensure we can either take on the challenge or make a swift escape. While this physiological response was ideal for outrunning or outfighting ancient dangers, it's less suited to addressing a crowded room or a tight deadline.

While our environment has evolved, our biological responses lag behind, sometimes turning everyday situations into arenas where we battle invisible beasts. The challenge now is not just to understand this mismatch but to manage it, ensuring our evolutionary heritage does not undermine our modern lives.

The Spotlight of Judgment: Anxiety Under Neurological Scrutiny

Recent research examining the neural intricacies of social anxiety disorder (SAD) among college students has unveiled a compelling paradox: the fear of being judged, whether positively or negatively, deeply influences the trajectory of anxiety disorder. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies and psychological assessments have traced how these fears amplify symptoms of social anxiety both initially and as they progress over time.

This fear of evaluation—whether one dreads negative criticism or feels unworthy of positive feedback—manifests distinctly in the brain. Neuroimaging data suggests that a heightened fear of negative evaluation corresponds to reduced activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region linked with diminished connectivity and less spontaneity in brain responses. On the flip side, the anxiety stirred by potential positive feedback triggers increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which plays a key role in mediating emotional response to stimuli, indicating enhanced connectivity and increased brain function in these areas. Social anxiety has a dual nature reflecting a complex interplay between brain function and emotional distress.

The Body Keeps the Score: Manifestations of Anxiety

Anxiety is not merely a shadow lurking in the corridors of the mind; it also etches its presence across the body in myriad, often surprising ways. The manifestations are as varied as they are impactful. Anxiety can mimic the sharp, pressing pain of a heart attack, sending individuals to emergency rooms in fear for their lives. It tightens its grip with muscle tension, leading to jaw clenching and prolonged stiffness that manifests as persistent pain in the back, neck, and shoulders. The skin, too, tells its own story of distress with conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema flaring under the strain of stress.

Internally, the turmoil continues with the gastrointestinal system reacting sensitively; nausea, gastric discomfort, and bloating are common as the enteric nervous system responds to psychological stress. Even the extremities and senses are not spared—cold hands and feet, changes in vision such as tunnel vision or blurry sight, and even sexual dysfunction can all stem from the relentless pulse of anxiety.

Moreover, it's not just about acute symptoms. Anxiety saps energy, leading to a pervasive sense of fatigue that makes daily tasks seem Herculean. The physical toll is both a symptom and a source of anxiety, creating a vicious cycle that can challenge even the most resilient individuals. Recognizing and addressing these physical manifestations are essential steps in breaking this cycle and reclaiming a sense of control over one's body and mind.

Microbial Moods: The Gut-Brain Connection in Anxiety

Ground-breaking research from University College Cork is illuminating how anxiety intertwines our mental health with the microscopic inhabitants of our gut. The study, led by Professor John Cryan and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores the significant role the gut microbiome may play in social anxiety disorder (SAD).

The research team discovered stark differences in the gut microbiomes of individuals with SAD compared to those without the disorder. More intriguingly, when gut microbes from individuals diagnosed with SAD were transplanted into mice, these mice exhibited increased social fear responses. This finding points to a potential causal relationship between the makeup of our gut microbiome and heightened social anxiety, suggesting that our gut bacteria could influence how we interact socially and experience fear in social situations.

The implications of this research are profound, opening new avenues for therapeutic interventions. Adjusting diet to nurture a healthier gut microbiome—such as increasing the intake of fibre and fermented foods—could potentially modulate anxiety levels. This revelation adds a compelling layer to our understanding of social anxiety, highlighting the need for a holistic approach that considers biological, psychological, and microbial factors in the management and treatment of anxiety disorders.

Practical Approaches to Managing Anxiety

Theoretical insights and research are invaluable, but practical advice often holds the key to daily management of anxiety. Here are some effective strategies to consider:

Improving Social Skills: Learning assertiveness, including the ability to communicate clearly and say no, enhances personal empowerment. Better nonverbal communication through confident posture and maintaining eye contact can boost self-assurance in social situations. Developing conversation skills, such as using engaging starters and practicing active listening, fosters smoother interactions.

Managing Emotions: Discussing feelings of anxiety with trusted friends or family members can provide relief. Techniques like deep breathing not only help stabilize emotions but also prepare one to face stressful situations more calmly. It’s beneficial to challenge and reframe negative thoughts to lessen their impact.

Facing Fears: Gradually exposing oneself to feared social scenarios, coupled with relaxation practices, can diminish avoidance behaviours. Approaching these situations in small, manageable steps and maintaining a critical eye on negative thoughts during such exposures can be transformative.

Daily Coping Strategies: Seeking support or accommodations at work or school can reduce stress. Strategies such as arriving early to meetings and preparing conversation topics like current events can ease social interactions. 

Go Easy on the Alcohol: While turning to alcohol might seem like an easy escape, it's wise to avoid using it as a coping mechanism as it’s one of the most common routes to addiction. The aftereffects of drinking, such as "hangxiety", can significantly compound feelings of anxiety, making the initial relief misleading. Consider opting for functional non-alcoholic spirits as an alternative.

Get out more, eat well, make new friends: Regular engagement in passionate activities, making new friendships, exercising, and maintaining a healthy diet are crucial for managing anxiety effectively.

Micro Meditation: Incorporating micro-meditation into one’s routine offers a powerful tool. This brief, scientifically supported practice involves simple exercises like the Anchored Breath, Body Scan, or Walking Wonder. Just 10 minutes of mindfulness each day can significantly reduce stress levels, enhance focus, improve emotional regulation, and boost cognitive functions such as memory and creativity.


Anxiety is its own interconnected system and dealing with it requires a joined up approach. For more information on health, wellness, and problems like hangxiety, check out the rest of our journal.


For delicious ways of managing your social anxiety without alcohol, head on over to our Instagram for a cornucopia of cocktail recipes.