Symptoms of anxiety can manifest in different ways for different people. Situations that increase anxiety, such as public speaking, social encounters, and others that lead to perceived scrutiny by peers, can also increase physical and physiological symptoms of anxiety. For individuals with social anxiety, a speaking task can be particularly challenging. Public speaking skills are often used in research on anxiety symptoms. When neurological and physiological symptoms are measured, people with SAD and those without have marked differences. However, in a recent study led by Jesus Pujol of the Hospital de Mar in Barcelona, Spain, both differences and similarities were found between two sample groups.
Pujol conducted an experiment in which 20 individuals with SAD and 20 without watched a prerecorded video of themselves delivering a public speaking task. In the video, the participants were critiqued by raters. The participants were assessed using MRIs while they watched the videos, to determine which cognitive and neurological processes were activated. Pujol found that all of the participants had increased neural activity as a result of watching themselves being scrutinized. But only those with SAD had weak cognitive emotion regulation activation. More specifically, even though all of the participants demonstrated similar general neurological arousal, the SAD participants had significant decreased activity in the brain region responsible for negative emotional regulation.
This finding suggests that the threat associated with SAD did not come from the social situation or even the public speaking task itself, but rather the possibility of scrutiny from others. “In essence, SAD patients do not ultimately fear the audience when exposed, but rather fear the notion of the observable self as a target for disapproval,” said Pujol. This result is quite revealing and provides new insight into the underlying mechanisms at play in people with SAD. Pujol hopes that these findings spur further research that compares this particular neurological response in participants with SAD to those with other forms of anxiety, including generalized anxiety, phobia, and panic.
Pujol, J., et al. (2013). Neural response to the observable self in social anxiety disorder. Psychological Medicine 43.4 (2013): 721-31. ProQuest. Web.
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