Can Anxiety Ruin Friendships?

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

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Deva J

    January 31st, 2013 at 8:29 AM

    Oh, man if you want to increase your anxiety and alienate a lot of people just spend some time on social media. I was so hooked on it b/c of my anxiety. It was so easy to be friends w/ people online rather than face to face. But then, b/c of my anxiety, I started to get insecure with my friends and got real jealous of closeness they had with other peopel. I had to quit looking at that stuff. It may be harder in person. But it’s better for me i think.

  • Farrah

    January 31st, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    It is definitely so easy to get all wrapped up in your own thoughts, insecurities, and anxieties when it comes to friendships. You can put yourself out there and fight through the anxiety. But, then eventually, you get tired of fighting and just crawl back into yourself. When that happens, the friendships you were just starting to form are damaged and people don’t want to invest emotionally in you anymore. It is kind of heart breaking.

  • Cairin

    January 31st, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    For some reason, the advice offered in this article reminds me of the new Matthew Perry sit-com called “Go On.” It’s about a group therapy centered around helping people with loss. But, it also addresses anxiety (of course). The characters’ interpersonal interactions are definitely affected by their anxieties! Of course, this is a comedy and it’s easy to enjoy these anxiety laden interactions, but it is true that people who struggle with anxiety in real life do have a tough go of it. My heart goes out to them!

  • Eileen

    January 31st, 2013 at 8:39 AM

    Cairin, another good popular show that looks at anxieties is Parenthood. Have you ever seen it and noticed the incredibly awkward and anxiety laden conversations they have? They definitely can push people away with their anxieties!!!

  • zoe

    January 31st, 2013 at 2:15 PM

    When someone is so wrapped up in their own issues, they rarely have anything to give back even to those who have stood by them and supported them in their time of need. They always need others but don’t want to have to give back.

  • layla

    January 31st, 2013 at 2:38 PM

    have to admit I’m uncomfortable around people I do not know. maybe mild SAD but once I do get to know someone for long enough and wells enough I can have very normal and healthy friendship with them. some of my friends say I’m one of the nicest friends they have ever had. yet I have trouble dealing with new people. i do not know why this is but it seems like this sort of behavior is an exception in those with an anxiety.

  • Lawrence

    January 31st, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    As a friend of someone who has severe anxiety I guess there have been many times that I have had to push my own hurt feelings aside and remember that most of the time it is the anxiety talking and reacting and not the real friend underneath it all.
    Is it hard to do this? Of course it is. There have been cruel words and hurt feelings and even times that I was convinced that we were growing so far apart that we would never be able to reestablish our friendship. But I think that if you give your relationships a good look you know the ones that are worth fighting for and I think that deep down for both of us, this was the one we chose to fight for.
    So I will continue on and so will he, and we will just shake it off and give it a try again because in the end a good friend is too precious to let anything take away from you.

  • WQ

    February 1st, 2013 at 12:33 AM

    Can anxiety ruin friendships?

    Not if you are close friends and your friend really ‘knows’ you. It’s a different thing if you always come across as being cold to someone. But if they know you well and you seem unresponsive at times at isn’t going to affect your friendship. I think that’s what sets apart a good friend from a BFF who keeps changing every few weeks.

  • jen

    April 8th, 2014 at 12:30 PM

    I would like your advise please. I’m 26 I lost touch with all my school friends during college b/c I could never get the courage to meet them out after leaving school. They eventually got tired of me agreeing 2 meet only to cancel later and all the frienddhips faded. In the past years I have always wanted 2 contact them but as the time gap got larger I grew more afraid. I recently saw one of them on a tour of a facility but I don’t think she saw me. What do ye think? Would it be to weird to txt her and ask her if shed be free for coffee? Or another old school friend. I’m tired of loosing people b/c of my social anxiety. Please advise.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.