“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” – Lao Tzu
In a society ruled by virtual interactions and relationships, it almost seems normal to approach social situations with awkwardness. When meeting new people or interacting with a crowd the common response is shyness. However, after a few minutes, it becomes easier to be more vulnerable and engaged with the once unfamiliar bodies, faces, and voices. Yet, for individuals with social anxiety disorder self-consciousness escalates and consumes not only the person’s thoughts but also their actions. Social anxiety is the intense fear of being judged, evaluated negatively or rejected by others in social situations.
Individuals with social anxiety disorder may experience distress in situations such as going to social gatherings, using public restrooms, eating in front of others, talking with strangers, and making eye contact. In uncomfortable situations, social anxiety disorder can manifest itself into physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, dizziness, trembling and/or diarrhea. On the other hand, physiological or behavioral symptoms may include: avoidance of social interactions, intense fear of embarrassment, and having anxiety in anticipation of a social event. Social anxiety may be influenced by genetics, prior negative experience or embarrassment, or an overactive amygdala, which is responsible for fear. Common treatments for social anxiety include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, group therapy and certain medications. CBT is typically used for reframing negative thoughts, controlling anxiety through relaxation, and can help an individual learn practical social skills. Exposure therapy is used to gradually expose the individual to stimuli that makes them fearful. Similarly, group therapy allows the individual to overcome their fear of social situations by interacting and role-playing with individuals who are also experiencing social anxiety. Lastly, medications such as antidepressants, beta-blockers, and anti-anxiety medication are commonly given as treatments for social anxiety disorder. These forms of medication work by suppressing the effects of norepinephrine which is a stress hormone or by inhibiting the re-uptake of serotonin and other ‘feel good’ hormones thereby allowing them to circulate in the blood and body a bit longer.
A less commonly used form of treatment may include understanding and identifying the significance of body language. Certified fraud examiner and body language expert Vanessa Van Edwards believes that understanding body language is the key for liberation from social anxiety. In Edwards’ opinion, body language is like a human cipher, it reveals a set of values you can use to figure out motivations, values, how to speak to people and how to make people feel loved. In addition, Edwards mentions that understanding facial structures can be beneficial to understand emotional expressions. However, it is vital to first understand the baseline or normal expression and observe the changes that occur with different emotions. In the book “What Every Body is Saying”, FBI agent Joe Navarro decodes certain aspects of body language. For example, Navarro mentions that neck touching reveals discomfort, doubt or insecurity, and that eye deflection reveals distrust. Understanding the way a person walks can also reveal how they feel in that moment and where they want to go (either to leave or to stay). From the photo provided above, one can read varying emotions of shame, anger, pride, apathy, happiness, and sadness that each face expresses.
Understanding these forms of body language and what they mean can help individuals with social anxiety feel more comfortable in certain situations through the ability to read their environment and the people surrounding them. Knowing how people move, and observing their facial expressions can make social situations less fearful and offers an escape from catastrophizing thoughts. The use of body language can help individuals experiencing social anxiety to alter the way other people perceive them and offer an outlet by truly understanding the behaviors of others.
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