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  • David Hanscom MD

Social Anxiety—Because Vulnerability Doesn’t Feel Safe

Yet it is at the core of successful human relationships.

Social Anxiety—Because Vulnerability Doesn’t Feel Safe

  • There are dire consequences in nature for being vulnerable.

  • Yet vulnerability is essential for creating thriving relationships.

  • Social anxiety results from the inability to tolerate the risk of rejection.

  • Tolerating anxiety is the first step in reaching out to others.


Humans want to feel safe. Feeling or being safe reflects profound shifts in your body’s chemistry, ushering in the capacity to “rest and digest.” Not only do you feel a deep sense of contentment, openness, and play, your body refuels and regenerates.


Your safety needs are not met, however, if you don’t feel heard, validated, and nurtured; your body shifts to a fight-or-fight state. You may seek to achieve safety by using power and control or, further, by deploying anger, a last-ditch survival effort that, while being protective for you, is destructive to those around you.


There is no reward for vulnerability for any species of life, from one-celled organisms to Homo sapiens. Consequences for being vulnerable are severe and often swift.

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It is never safe to be off-guard, and different species create ways to be safe in order regenerate. Dolphin sleep with one eye open. Many species form protective groups. Other creatures hide or camouflage. Many species simply have thousands of offspring so that a few will survive. When such strategies fail, organisms resort to whatever aggressive response they have available to them. The more strength and power, the better.


Humans have language, which creates another level of issues around seeking safety. It enables us to possess abstract thinking, which allows us to engage in the arts, create coordinated societal actions, and have complex relationships with others. We rose to the top of the food chain because of our capacity to cooperate with each other. We have a strong evolutionary need for close connections and relationships: Being socially isolated or lonely has the same effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1 Notice how much effort we put into seeing close friends and family during the holidays. We want to be with each other, and the closer the better.


But one of the most perverse aspects of being human is that successful, thriving relationships require vulnerability and trust. These traits are the antithesis of feeling safe. “You hurt my feelings” and “you broke my heart” reflect the fact that emotional/mental pain is processed in a similar manner as physical pain.2 We don’t like pain in any form, yet we have to become vulnerable in order to have deep and satisfying relationships. It is a huge problem, and it is not playing out well for the human race.


By definition, every interaction with another person requires taking a risk of being rejected or hurt. Even check-out at the grocery store involves trusting the person at the register to accurately document your purchases and help you with your bags. It's nice if they're in a good mood and are friendly, but what if they are having a bad day?


Then there are deeper relationships—being part of a team, engaging in a project together, starting up any type of relationship, and living together. Being rejected at some level of interaction is not only common but also the rule. As you become more and more trusting, a tipping point of vulnerability may be reached, and one person will pull back or even reject the relationship.

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Your options

At this point, your choices are to 1) quit taking risks associated with interacting with others, 2) engage but experience social anxiety, 3) use whatever power you possess to control others, 4) learn to be vulnerable. Since we don’t inherently possess the ability to feel vulnerable, the other strategies are more commonly utilized.


Some form of anger is universal. Why? It keeps you safe. It protects you from both emotional and physical pain. Even if you don’t actually have the power to change the situation, you may feel like you do. Raw anxiety is intolerable and why we hold onto anger.


Why let go of anger?

  • You simply cannot heal or thrive when you remain angry. The essence of healing is normalizing your body’s neurochemical state to that of safety, which is profoundly restorative. If your whole system remains fired up, it can’t and won’t happen.

  • Anger is destructive, as it is meant to be. It's your body’s last-ditch effort to escape threat. It is destructive in every direction, including self-destructive. It is a reason why many people completely neglect every aspect of their health. It is tantamount to slow suicide.

  • Anger is abusive and destroys relationships. The key element of successful human interactions is awareness of your needs and others’ needs. How else can you constructively interact with those close to you? Anger completely blocks awareness.

  • Anger destroys families. Human consciousness evolved through language and social interactions. The ability to cooperate took Homo sapiens to the top of the food chain. The need for human connection is deep. Unfortunately, close connections also provide the strongest emotional triggers. Why would you ever be unkind to someone you care for so much? Why is the incidence of domestic abuse so high? That may be the most disturbing paradox of human existence.

  • Anger, as the manifestation of the fight mode of the survival response, affects all organ systems. The blood supply to your gut, bladder, and frontal lobes of your brain diminishes and is shunted to your heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles. You can’t think clearly, although it might feel like you can. It is critical to “take no action in a reaction.


Interacting with others involves taking the risk of being rejected or even hurt. There are material risks, such as trusting a business partner who might run off with your money. What about when a partner or spouse takes off with another person? Simply reaching out to another person in friendship creates some level of anxiety.

Houston Social Anxiety and Vulnerability Appointment

Train your brain

You can use avoidance, suffer from chronic social anxiety, or resort to power and control to feel safe. The healthiest and most satisfying option is learning to be vulnerable and process rejection. In other words, being with anxiety.


Being or feeling rejected is inherent to relationships, and unless you understand this, your world will become progressively smaller. Training yourself to lower your physiologic response to threat (anxiety) instead of fighting it allows you to navigate life more easily.


It also matters that social connections are anti-inflammatory and lower your level of anxiety.3 Addressing social anxiety is a bi-directional process. You can nurture joy, more easily interact with others, create the life you desire, and feel safer.




David Hanscom MD - Website - Resources -


References


Cigna US Loneliness Index. Cigna: 2018.


Eisenberger N. “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain.” Psychosom Med (2012); 74: 126-135.


Dantzer R, et al. Resilience and immunity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2018); 74:28-42



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