Given the focus of this course is social anxiety, let’s take a closer look at why we feel this emotion. Whilst anxiety can be a primary emotion, it is also a common secondary emotion. For example, we may feel embarrassed (primary emotion) about something we did at work. We may then feel anxious (secondary emotion) about what people are thinking or saying about us.
But what is the purpose of anxiety? Put simply, anxiety is part of our inbuilt system for dealing with stress. It is meant to protect us from danger and prepare us to respond quickly to threats. The fight-flight-freeze (FFF) response is closely related to anxiety. This is your body’s alarm system, which activates the body in response to danger to help keep you safe.
When we feel anxiety, it may be telling us one or more of the following things:
- You are facing a threat or a risk of some kind
- You might be hurt, rejected, or criticised
- You might lose something or someone
- You might embarrass or humiliate yourself
- You might fail to achieve your goals
- You are helpless, incompetent and have no control
- You are alone and will not get help
Essentially, all of this boils down to one thing – something you care about is at risk.
Many physical changes occur when anxiety and the FFF system is activated (e.g., increased heart rate, release of adrenaline). This prepares you to either fight, flee, or freeze:
- The fight response occurs when we stay to take action and fight off the danger
- The flee response occurs when we run away or try to escape the danger
- The freeze response occurs when we become immobile and stay completely still
This is particularly helpful and can be lifesaving when there is real danger. For example, if you see a truck coming towards you, your FFF system allows you to quickly jump out of the way.
However, anxiety can become a problem when the FFF system is overactive. In other words, when non-threatening situations trigger the FFF response. In social anxiety, you feel threatened by relatively harmless social situations. This activates the stress response and results in the symptoms of social anxiety that we have already discussed. In severe cases, the stress response may also be chronically ‘turned on’.
So, anxiety serves a purpose. To get rid of anxiety altogether would put us in an extremely vulnerable position. This would be like removing a smoke alarm system from a house – in the event of a fire, our safety would be at risk. However, when anxiety is overactive, it stops being helpful. It’s like a faulty fire alarm that goes off at the smell of burnt toast. Instead of trying to get rid of anxiety altogether, we need to learn ways to understand it and regulate it. In the sections below, we cover skills that will help you do this.