Got Anxiety? The origins of social anxiety (part 2) |

Got Anxiety? The origins of social anxiety (part 2)

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D.
Mary B. Barmann, MFT

Editor’s note

This is the second in a 4-part series from the Barmanns about Social Anxiety Disorder. Click here to read part 1.

Approximately 11 million individuals suffer from the most common form of anxiety — Social Anxiety. Let’s review the primary factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of this debilitating condition.


As is the case with all anxiety disorders, there is always more than one factor that contributes to the development of any particular anxiety condition.

With respect to Social Anxiety, there are three major influences responsible for the development and maintenance of this disorder (biological, environmental, and cognitive).

We refer to these elements as “triple vulnerabilities” due to the synergistic effect they have in causing certain individuals to become more vulnerable than others for developing this form of anxiety.

The impact that each of these features has will vary across different people, due to the type of experiences encountered early in life.

For some, environmental factors (life experiences) will have a more significant contribution regarding a future diagnosis of Social Anxiety, as opposed to biological or cognitive factors.


Biological/genetic factors associated with anxiety refers primarily to our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), or “arousal system.”

Everyone has a biological disposition to feel threatened by eye contact; it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism, courtesy of our prehistoric ancestors.

Humans have a biologically determined “readiness” (vulnerability) to associate anxiety and social disapproval with angry or critical facial expressions, resulting in behavioral inhibition — an inherited tendency to avoid approaching uncertain situations.

Eye contact stimulates our SNS, which then releases adrenalin. There is a great deal of variability across different people with respect to the speed and intensity of our arousal system.

Indeed, some people are born “sympathetic nervous system dominant,” meaning that their arousal system will respond more quickly, and with greater intensity, once stimulated.

For example, individuals born SNS dominant, along with having a genetic family history of anxiety, would be considered vulnerable to misinterpreting a rapid heart rate, or excessive sweating, as threatening in nature.

For those who develop Social Anxiety, these physiological changes are typically triggered through direct and prolonged eye contact in social situations.

However, it is not these physiological changes that represent threat; it is the MEANING one gives to these physical sensations that results in a tendency to become anxious when needing to interact with others.


Although genetic vulnerabilities are important, they can be made less important, or strengthened, as the result of life experiences with parents, friends, teachers, coaches, etc., particularly with respect to how these individuals evaluated our behavior.

These evaluations can go a long way in forming certain beliefs we endorse regarding how others think of us — loved or unloved, accepted or rejected, competent or inept. They can also determine how we view our self-worth and degree of competence when relating to other people.

For example, consider someone who was raised by parents who typically gave negative and derogatory feedback concerning nearly every task he or she performed.

In addition, this same individual attended schools with teachers who were overly strict regarding making mistakes, and provided primarily negative feedback with little, or no encouragement, for attempts at facing challenging tasks.

If the dominant message a person receives across several important mentors is negative in nature, they will begin to seriously doubt their degree of competency in various social situations.

Once self-doubt and uncertainty surface throughout different social settings, these feelings become a trigger for anxiety with respect to how others will evaluate them, along with the assumption that they will be seen as inadequate or inferior in some way.

Starting a conversation with someone may be enough to elicit a sense of social vulnerability.


A cognitive vulnerability refers to the consistent manner in which we tend to INTERPRET the interactions we have with others.

For those with a clinical diagnosis of Social Anxiety, their default manner of thinking can be best summarized as, “What if I make a mistake; what will others think of me?”

Overestimations of social threat, along with an underestimation of one’s perceived ability to handle making a mistake when interacting with other people, leads to an exaggerated focus on negative thought patterns, feelings of unpredictability and a lack of control — which then culminates in a heightened sense of threat (negative evaluations by others) when needing to “perform” in a variety of social environments.

The three vulnerability factors discussed within this article also play a significant role in the development of our “Core Beliefs” early in life — beliefs related to the meaning we place on own behavior, as well as the behavior of those we interact with each day.

Over time, they come to represent the lens through which we learn to interpret our world. In Part 3 of this series, we’ll discuss the most common Core Beliefs associated with Social Anxiety.

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatment to learn more.

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