People who have social anxiety (SAD) may find it difficult to interact with others. They may become overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety when they are in crowds or around people they do not know. But how does SAD affect interpersonal relationships, and in particular friendships? Thomas L. Rodebaugh of Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri was curious to see how the constraints of anxiety spill over into personal relationships. Warmth, reciprocity, and genuine interest in another are at the core of all close friendships. If these elements are impaired they could significantly damage the relationship.
Rodebaugh led a study that involved 27 participants with generalized SAD and 23 with no history of anxiety. The participants were presented with a simulated social dilemma that required they make decisions and interact with a hypothetical friend. The results revealed that the SAD participants were less giving and less willing to participate in the task than the non-SAD participants. The lower level of giving resulted in increases in coldness as well. This result provides a clue as to why SAD may erode even close friendships.
If people are unable to convey warmth and return feelings of genuine interest to others, those around them, even close friends, may perceive that behavior as distant, callous, or uncaring. “Potential or current friends may interpret lower warmth as indicating coldness or lack of interest, both of which may reduce the likelihood that they will continue such interactions,” said Rodebaugh. This explains the pathway through which anxiety can erode friendships. Rodebaugh believes that people with SAD do not intend to alienate their friends but rather are unable to convey closeness because of their heightened anxiety. Most approaches aimed at reducing anxiety do not address interpersonal interactions. Rodebaugh believes that efforts designed to teach people with SAD how to display warmth and caring may serve to strengthen those relationships that are most important to them.
Rodebaugh, T. L., Shumaker, E. A., Levinson, C. A., Fernandez, K. C., Langer, J. K., Lim, M. H., and Yarkoni, T. (2012). Interpersonal constraint conferred by generalized social anxiety disorder is evident on a behavioral economics task. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030975
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