Many clients come to me reporting that they have social anxiety as expressed in an excessive worry about being negatively evaluated by others in social settings. For some, this may mean experiencing significant distress during social gatherings. For others, this may cause them to altogether avoid social environments with unfamiliar people. Even when we do not generally have an outright fear of social interactions, most of us will occasionally experience some levels of social anxiety: holding a speech, going for a job interview, going on a first date. Why do situations in which we feel scrutinized by others cause us anxiety?
The answer may lie in evolution: characteristics that contribute to an individual’s survival increase the likelihood that the individual will be able to pass these genes on to future generations. For humans, the ability to form social bonds and live in groups permitted the distribution of work. For example, athletic individuals may have brought in good meat from the hunt, while strong individuals may have worked the fields or protected the cave. By sharing the workload, people could also look after each other: the healthy feeding the sick, the young nurturing the elderly, the village raising the children. This system enhanced the likelihood of survival. Moreover, groups provided safety in numbers. The larger the group, the safer people were from attacks by unfriendly tribes or wild animals.
Being part of a group keeps us alive. In plain terms: People who were liked and remained part of their social group were more likely to survive. People who did not play by the social rules and fell out of favour risked being exiled and having to fend on their own in the wilderness – a likely death sentence.
These strong survival mechanisms continue to run through us today. We want to remain part of our social group and we use social cues and feedback to make sure we are not offending our peers with our behaviour. Every evaluation bears risks for us, causing sensations of racing heartbeats, dropping stomachs, and sweaty palms.
Of course, social anxiety can range from being uncomfortable to debilitating and there are certainly ways to improve our wellbeing in social situations. So why should be embrace social anxiety? Understanding the roots of our social anxiety is a first step toward managing our stress. Social anxiety keep us sensitive to interpersonal cues from people around us that help us to strengthen and improve our social bonds. And most of all, social anxiety kept our ancestors and us alive!