There is much evidence that strong friendships and relationships can positively influence health. But if you tend to become anxious in social settings, you may not be gaining the potential benefits.
Social phobia or anxiety is more common than you might think, since sufferers are reluctant to speak up about the problem. It usually consists of a persistent fear of scrutiny by others, alongside a fear of doing something that may be humiliating or embarrassing. Social events tend to make the sufferer anxious, even if they realize the fear is irrational.
Shyness is similar to social phobia. Both involve self-consciousness and self-deprecating thoughts and can lead to avoidance of social situations. But social phobia is rarer than shyness and more debilitating. It can make parties, gatherings, meals out, or trips to the bar a terrifying experience. This is a distressing condition that affects a person’s quality of life. It is associated with increased risk of depression, substance abuse and even attempted suicide.
Aside from the physical discomfort involved in having a pounding heart, breathlessness and blushing, the long-term effects of social phobia on general happiness can be severe. It becomes a vicious circle: you feel uncomfortable in groups, so you avoid social situations, then you feel left out the next time you meet with the group.
Ideas for Tackling Social Phobia
- Write down your signs and symptoms in a notebook. How does it affect your thinking, your behavior, your body, your feelings?
- Try to identify the thought patterns that bring on these symptoms. Make a “thought record” and describe the situation in which you felt anxious, your symptoms, and the thoughts and feelings that triggered them.
- Once you have identified them, work on changing the underlying thoughts. You can do this alone or with the help of a close friend or a therapist.
- One step at a time, do things differently. Experiment with letting go of your avoidance behaviors. For example, keep a conversation going a little longer, or say hello to a waiter or shop assistant. This will build your confidence.
- Lower your self-consciousness by focusing on others. Bear in mind that not everybody is looking at you.
A 2003 study investigated whether sociable people are more resistant to infections.
Healthy, adult volunteers were interviewed and exposed to a cold virus. The researchers found that “sociability” was directly linked to risk of developing a cold, as those who had more and higher-quality social interaction got significantly fewer cold infections. The link remained even after several lifestyle factors that could affect health were taken into account. Researchers concluded that “sociability predicts resistance to infectious disease” and this link is “attributable to the quality and quantity of social interactions and relationships.”
Another study tested the theory that diverse ties to friends, family, work, and community help protect us against infections. It found that volunteers with a wider variety of social ties were less susceptible when exposed to a cold virus, and those who did develop symptoms recovered faster. This effect was proportional, meaning that resistance to bugs directly increased as the individual’s social network widened.
Despite the increased risk of exposure to bacteria and viruses during the “cold season,” it’s not worth reducing your social interactions to avoid a cold, according to Dr. Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Just make sure you wash your hands frequently to rid yourself of others’ germs.
Humor also is linked to sociability and may affect the immune system by regulating white blood cells and stress hormone levels.
Dr. Cohen studied emotions and risk of developing a cold. He hypothesized that people who typically report experiencing negative emotions are at greater risk than those who typically report positive emotions. His team tested 334 healthy adults for their tendency to experience positive emotions such as happy, pleased, and relaxed and for negative emotions such as anxious, hostile, and depressed.
When exposed to a cold virus, those with a “positive emotional style” were at a lower risk of developing symptoms. These individuals also took better care of their health in general.
Cohen S. et al. Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 277, June 25, 1997, pp. 1940-44.
Cohen S. et al. Sociability and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychological Science, Vol. 14, September 2003, pp. 389-95.
Cohen S. et al. Emotional Style and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 65, July-August 2003, pp. 652-57.