Those suffering from social anxiety disorder (SAD) often struggle to connect with others and find all kinds of social situations nerve-wracking. The current theory of social anxiety treatment explains this in terms of levels of anxiety. People with SAD will tend to predict that social interactions will go badly, causing them to feel anxious. This anxiety inhibits their behaviour during the interaction and makes them less likely to reach out and feel connected to the people they are with, as well as making them likely to try and avoid social situations altogether.
However, when social psychologists study the ways relationships are formed in non-socially anxious people, one of the most important factors involved is the level of positive emotions being experienced. Enjoying a social encounter with someone helps you feel more connected and motivates you to engage with them again in the future.
Since positive emotions are such a key part of relationships for most people, it would be interesting to see how they influence the formation of relationships in people with social anxiety.
The current study tested this idea by creating a relationship-forming scenario for people with social anxiety to take part in and measuring their levels of anxiety, enjoyment, and how connected they felt to the person they were talking to. Participants were introduced to a research assistant and asked to take it in turns answering questions about each other in order to get to know each other and establish a relationship.
It was found that as the experiment progressed and participants got to know their conversation partner, levels of anxiety decreased and levels of positive emotions increased. Positive emotion was found to be the biggest factor influencing feelings of connectedness to the partner and desire to stay friends with them after the experiment was over. In other words it was positive emotions and enjoyment that were important in forming social connections, not levels of anxiety.
This study is very interesting because most social anxiety treatment focuses solely on reducing anxiety through exposure to social situations or cognitive-behavioural therapy. But there may be a piece missing from this puzzle. Positive emotions are just as important-if not more important- than fear levels in establishing relationships in social situations.
People with SAD often experience low levels of positive emotion during social situations- they don’t enjoy socialising very much. This research shows that an effective path to overcoming social anxiety could be to focus on increasing positive emotions instead of just reducing anxiety. The happier people feel when they are talking to someone, the more connected they are and the more likely they are to want to see each other again. New treatments for social anxiety therefore need to focus on these positive emotions as well as tackling the high levels of anxiety.
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