Social Anxiety

Social anxiety can be an extremely debilitating condition
for those who suffer from it. It comes in various degrees ranging from mere
shyness to full-blown avoidance personality disorder. I want to speculate here
about what may underlie this and hopefully reach some sort of clarity regarding
its conceptual classification.
First, this problem seems intimately related to feelings of
shame. A lot of clinical cases identify that patients suffering from this condition
have an extreme fear of blushing in public. Their concern is that this will
severely embarrass them and that others will laugh at them. Other manifestations
of this syndrome are the avoidance of eye contact and standing apart from
others. These are strategies that these patients use to minimize their anxiety.
Another fear they usually have is that they will blank out in mid-sentence and
so seem stupid or socially awkward, and that this will lead to their social
ostracism and humiliation. All of these phenomena point to the root of this
disorder in being ashamed of oneself or of one’s social inadequacy. However,
the disorder is an anxiety disorder, meaning that its positive symptom is fear
or worry, and specifically fear of being ashamed in public. This may be due to
earlier imprints in the memory of childhood situations where this has happened
and led to a very strong emotional response. This early life experience
conditioned the patient to fear the recurrence of these episodes and so to avoid
social situations altogether. In other words, the classically conditioned fear
leads to operant conditioning resulting from systematic avoidance, which
reduces social anxiety, thereby perpetuating and strengthening the learned fear
and behavior.
One question that may be asked at this point is: why should
public humiliation be an inherently upsetting experience? That is to ask, what
is the mechanism that leads us to be so emotionally invested in the reactions
we produce in others? Cognitive behavioral therapy for social phobia revolves
around trying to challenge a patient’s belief that other people are judging
him/her or thinking otherwise negative thoughts. These patients will interpret others’
sometimes benign gestures and glances as evidence of harsh judgments about
them. This all points to the source of the disorder as being due to wanting
others to think well of us. While this is true of most of us, in these patients
it rises to an extreme pitch and becomes an ever-present gnat whirring about
their consciousness, issuing its continuous queries and fantasies about what
others may have thought about them. It seems that for these people, self-worth
is completely yoked to the judgments of others, be they of praise or of blame.
Thus, another aspect of therapy is to challenge this notion and to try to get
these patients to generate internal sources of self-worth.
The reason that I even bring any of this up is that I feel
much affinity with these patients, and though I have never been diagnosed with
a disorder of this kind, I feel that I may have at times been close to it. While
never reaching the threshold of an anxiety disorder, I have always had mild
fears relating to my social inadequacies. What’s more, I feel the same way
about pretty much most of the psychiatric disorders that I am currently
learning about. Whether it’s bipolar disorder, phobias, paranoid schizophrenia,
or major depression, I feel that the roots of all of these lie dormant within
my mind, ready to be activated given the requisite triggers.
Returning to the discussion of social anxiety disorder, I
wanted to see if this could somehow be framed in terms of pride or some other
such ego construct, where ego is not to be taken in the Freudian psychodynamic
sense but in a more general self-affirming egotistical sense, as it is
understood in common parlance. If we postulate that some degree of pride,
whether merited or not, is fundamental to the human psyche, then it seems quite
natural for the sort of social anxiety phenomena described above to arise. Pride
involves the creation of a favorable mental image of oneself, and the
sustenance and promulgation thereof. Therefore when situations arise that may
lead others to develop an unfavorable image that differs markedly from the
favored one, this leads to considerable stress. This is satisfactory for me as
an explanation of the phenomenon at the adult level once the ego has been
distilled and installed. And perhaps the crucial conditioning event from one’s
past did not occur in childhood, but in early adolescence during that turbulent
time when the innocence of childhood is passing and the pride of adulthood is
fast emerging.
Now, given what has been said above, this disorder appears
to be the manifestation of what I’m going to call the ‘will-to-be-liked’. This
relates our subject matter to the distinction between will and representation
that Schopenhauer teaches us about. Will, in his philosophy, is the kernel of
existence and is not much more than blind urge or striving. Representation is
the knowledge that is generated by brains in service of the will. Another
framing of this particular manifestation of Schopenhauer’s ‘will’ may be to
call it the ‘will-to-dominate’. Framing it this way brings hierarchical social
structures to bear on the issue. Specifically, the current vertical
organization of our social strata induces people to aim to reach the top of the
ladder, in order that they may have power over their peers and surroundings.
This is fundamental to the delusional human psyche that views its individuality
as absolute. This is the ignorance that spawns the infinite phenomena of the
representational world, each vying to secure a little piece or portion of the
whole and call it ‘mine’, not recognizing that each and every little part is no
more than its own image reflected through the kaleidoscopic lens of ego.
So, if this is the case, we may now ask the question: what
is required? Since generalized anxiety is such a common experience, although
not necessarily always reaching diagnostic proportions, seeking an answer for
this question would seem to be a pressing concern. A commonality amongst all
the anxiety disorders that underlies all of them is fear and worry. Any fear
that is not due to immediate bodily threats is specifically what is referred to
here. That is to say, fears that are anticipatory and not related to any
specific sense datum. This can only come about if two conditions are met: 1)
the individual is fixated on thoughts related to the future, and 2) the
individual is fixated on the self/ego. If the first condition is not met – i.e.
if the fear is aroused by a real danger currently present to the individual –
then it becomes a matter of biological necessity that aversive reactions are
evoked, the so-called ‘fight or flight response’ that is instigated by the
sympathetic autonomic nervous system. If the second condition is not met – i.e.
if the individual is currently in a trance-like or expansive state of mind that
is not restricted to self-thoughts – then anticipatory fear cannot happen because
there is no framework of self-preservation, as the mind is not centered in any
one spatiotemporal locale. Thus, when the mind opens up to the whole with which
it is identical and loses its restrictive ego-centeredness, it is freed from
all worry and negative states of mind. In fact, another anecdotal report of why
patients with panic disorder have panic attacks describes their feelings of
helplessness and lack of control over bodily and environmental processes. But
the notion of control is precisely the delusion that stems from an imagined
independence from the whole and an arbitrary autonomy that is quite simply
fantastical. Fear of death is another potent trigger of these panic attacks;
but do these patients fail to recognize that death is certain, and that fear of
something certain is ludicrous? In short, all of the self-preservation thoughts
and behaviors are related to individualistic consciousness that believes in an
absolute barrier between itself and the whole and therefore wishes to secure
its livelihood, even if at the expense of the whole and if this entails taking
advantage of others. So to answer the question we began this paragraph with:
what is required is to correct this optical illusion of consciousness that
discretizes the continuous whole, splits an inseparable singularity, which rips
itself violently apart in tortuous acts of self-cannibalization, and spins an
ever-thickening veil of self-deception with which it blinds itself from reality.
May we unveil nature’s face and learn to recognize one in all and all in one.

2 thoughts on “Social Anxiety

  1. Well put Majoood. I couldn't have said it better myself! But here's a question: you layout two conditions needed for one to develop severe anxiety and you say that this ego-dependent behaviour is typically imbedded from a young age. How do you get children who are generally lacking in the prefrontal cortex and hence neuronally incapable of diverting their thoughts from the ego to evade the second condition? Condition and teach them from a young age?

  2. actually waleed, I think the prefrontal cortex is itself what causes the fixation on ego-thoughts. and so children who do not have a developed prefrontal cortex are disinhibited. I think there is much wisdom to be found in kids, especially the really really young ones. as they get older they begin to learn by example how to assert themselves and wage ego-battle with all the minds that they are beginning to recognize in these moving shapes and forms and bodies around them. basically, if their surrounding adult figures are without the anxiety, they will simply not learn it, even if their genes predispose them to it, because they will retain their childhood innocence and unity with the whole.

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