“I wasn’t always aware that I was afraid of others,” says Flore*, 24. The young woman was recently able to put a word on what she has always felt: “All I knew at the time was that I felt bad in the middle of the crowd, when speaking in public , on the telephone or even during confrontations with the authorities, in particular with teachers”.
As the case of Flore shows, the fear of the other, or “social anxiety”, results in the fear of finding oneself in an uncomfortable situation involving others. Laurie Hawkes, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and author of the book Overcome your fear of others (Editions Eyrolles), confirms that “one suffers from social anxiety when these situations become painful experiences”.
The “pain” accompanies the feeling of “fear” by creating varied and more or less disabling physical symptoms in these anxious people. Flore thus explains that she feels “great difficulty in expressing herself”, “tremors”, or even “a weight in the chest”. Sometimes she is even confronted with more significant symptoms such as “difficulty breathing with jerky breathing”, especially in crowds, which makes her want to get out urgently. She adds: “I am also likely to have black holes or even blurred vision with spots in the eyes, which can look like the onset of discomfort”.
Where does this social anxiety come from?
If the consequences of fear of the other manifest themselves in symptoms, what are the causes? Are some people more prone than others? Laurie Hawkes points out that there are several explanations for the origin of this social anxiety.
The fear of the Unknown : The fear of the other is characterized above all by a certain fear of the unknown, whether it is a person whom one does not know, a situation or even the future… Uncertainty is the main vector of anxieties in anxious people, who fear the loss of control.
For example, the apprehension of a job interview or a simple evening can turn into an unpleasant feeling, accompanied by certain physical symptoms, in an anxious person. He is afraid of the uncertain course of the event. He imagines all sorts of catastrophic scenarios and this rumination leads to discomfort.
A fear that is created from childhood: We can already spot potential social anxiety in so-called “highly reactive” babies. These babies are more likely to frown when shown something unfamiliar. For example, if an object that they do not recognize is waved in front of them, they stiffen up and start screaming. On the contrary, a baby who does not show a “highly reactive” character will be curious and will look at the unknown object with interest.
Growing up, “highly reactive” babies are likely to develop social anxiety. It tends to increase during childhood and especially adolescence.
For others, social anxiety can develop after a period of school bullying: “High school was very hard for me, I couldn’t go anymore because of my anxiety attacks, my stomach aches and head. I was making myself sick,” recalls Liam, 27. The young man believes that this malaise was linked to the fact that he had a hard time being confronted with the gaze of others: “I think it was an overflow due to my school bullying in primary and middle school. . So I “exploded” in high school. »
Today, his social anxiety seems to have diminished, but he sometimes feels it in certain situations, especially at work. “This manifests itself when it is necessary to return to face-to-face after a long period at a distance. The apprehension is difficult to bear at first but it ends up being fine during the day. It remains a daily struggle for me. »
The “education” factor: Parents play a big role in the development of the child and in his more or less anxious character. They overprotect him by warning him of sometimes unjustified dangers. This may have created a distrust of the other, seen as a potentially “dangerous” individual, or simply a fear of his judgement. Certain phrases can reinforce this anxious message, such as “be careful, don’t show your weaknesses” or “don’t tell anyone that”.
On the contrary, if the child is taught that most things go well, the other does not seem scary to him.
Self-persuasion: Beyond education or the influence of a social milieu, fear of the other is also a matter of self-persuasion. We can convince ourselves that an event will go wrong by feeding on negative thoughts and preconceptions. For example, someone who is apprehensive about a party with lots of strangers may convince themselves that it will be catastrophic. He will then often prefer to avoid the event. Liam has often declined invitations because of this: “I had developed a reflex for a few years: find an excuse, a pretext, to avoid going there. »
Self-persuasion is reinforced by remaining focused on a bad experience. If the anxious individual had a bad evening in the past, he will convince himself that the next one will happen the same way, this is a “self-validating hypothesis”. We also note that by dint of imagining a failed evening, it is possible that it really becomes so. Indeed, a negative and withdrawn person will not make others want to take an interest in them. It’s a vicious circle.
This is the same mechanism found in people who are afraid of romantic relationships. This often comes from bad experiences on which they remain stuck. These people therefore conclude that they are not “made for love” and move away from it.
What are the risks associated with fear of the other?
“The problem is that social anxiety becomes a handicap,” explains Laurie Hawkes. It rots life because it prevents spontaneity. »
According to the psychologist, “it can make people depressed and desperate, because fear prevents them from doing what they want to do deep down. This is the case of Liam, who goes through periods of depression where he locks himself up at home with his negative thoughts. It is a tiring state for the young man who would no longer like to be uncomfortable in his life.
Laurie Hawkes often encounters patients who say to themselves “I’ll never get out of this, I’m always going to ruin my life, I suck” or “everything scares me, life terrifies me”. According to her, this can lead to “depressive symptoms or even suicidal thoughts. »
In other cases, people turn to taking substances to try to forget their anxiety. If the psychologist recognizes that a glass “is likely to free someone who is shy and allow them to open up to others”, she immediately warns that you should not tell yourself that you need this glass to talk to others: “be careful not to make it a habit, otherwise it becomes systematic and the person risks increasing the doses, which can lead to addiction”.
Alcoholism, but also the consumption of drugs or smoking, comes under this mechanism: “Some people use cigarettes as a kind of self-medication to combat social anxiety”.
While social anxiety can be a hindrance in someone’s life, it’s important to emphasize that it can be overcome and that there is nothing permanent about this situation. If you can’t do it alone, it is advisable to follow a therapy to find the solutions.
*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.
Laurie Hawkes, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and author of the book Overcome your fear of others (Editions Eyrolles)
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