The Circus Mirror Effect: Social Anxiety and Friendships

Friends on boat
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Over a lifetime, most people have experienced looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror. Perhaps you looked really tall, really fat, maybe you were all zig-zaggy. But you knew that it was just an optical illusion and that when you stepped outside the fun-house, you were back to your normal self. What if that fun-house effect lasted 4 hours a day? What if you actually thought that was the way that you looked?

A November 2014 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests that people with social anxiety disorder are stuck with those fun-house misperceptions 24 hours a day when it comes to how they view their friendships.

The researchers were interested to examine perceptions of friendships both by people with social anxiety and their friends because we know that those with SAD tend to be biased in how they perceive situations. In other words, they tend to always view themselves in a negative light. They examined these issues among 77 people diagnosed with SAD, and 63 people from the community, and looked at both friendships in general, and specific friendships.

Results of the study suggested that social anxiety disorder negatively affects self-perceptions of the quality of specific friendships, but that friends of people with SAD don't see the friendships in such a negative light. The effects of having SAD were most evident for younger people and those with shorter duration friendships.

Were are there any differences reported by friends of people with SAD? Yes. They said they were less dominant in the friendship and less well-adjusted.

Overall, these findings are consistent with what we know about SAD; it does affect friendships, but those with the disorder tend to blow those effects out of proportion. In other words, yes, people think you are a little quiet and perhaps a little anxious, but they still enjoy having you as a friend!

Digging a bit into some related research, we find that indeed these effects of SAD on friendships are supported.

In another November 2014 study published in Anxiety Stress Coping, researchers found that among children aged 7 to 13 years, those with social anxiety disorder and their friends reported lower overall friendship quality than those with other types of anxiety disorders . In other words, while those with SAD may have blown-out-of-proportion negative perceptions of their friendships, there is indeed some unique impact of having SAD on these friendships, that doesn't occur with other types of anxiety. This makes sense, from the perspective that social anxiety is all about the fear of being around people!

In a June 2014 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, researchers found that among children aged 7 to 12 years, children who gave a verbal presentation in an anxious manner versus a confident one were liked more when they acted confidently. However, this finding was significantly greater among those who did not have SAD than those who did. In other words, kids who were socially anxious were more understanding when other kids acted in an anxious manner, than were kids who didn't suffer from SAD.

What does all of this mean if you experience social anxiety? It's possible other people like you more than you realize. However, you probably do have some impairments in your friendships that wouldn't be present if you had a different type of anxiety disorder. And, if you know other people with social anxiety, they probably understand you (and perhaps accept you) in a way that people without the disorder might not. Not to say that your friendships with non-anxious people aren't good. In fact, they are probably much better than you realize.

What can we do to improve friendships among people with SAD? In an August 2014 study published in Community Practice, a 12-week group intervention called "FUN FRIENDS" was shown to enable children aged 4 to 7 with symptoms of anxiety to become more self-sufficient, and in turn, develop greater emotional and social skills.

From the FUN FRIENDS website, the program helps kids to:

  • normalize feelings of anxiety
  • learn skills to cope with stress, challenges, and change
  • increase emotional resilience and problem-solving
  • build friendships and support networks
  • build confidence and self-esteem

Through the program, children learn the importance of being a good friend to themselves (when they are feeling anxious) and how having friends can be of support when needed. The program is tailored for ages 4 to 16 and is delivered by teachers and other adult figures.

If you have a child with social anxiety, you may wish to look into having this program implemented in your school.

If you are an adult with social anxiety, you can use other strategies to work on the areas described above. For example, acceptance and commitment therapy may help you to normalize feelings of anxiety. Mindfulness meditation may help to increase your emotional resilience. When it comes to the importance of friendship and building social support networks, you may consider joining a support group specifically geared toward those with social anxiety. As described previously, those are the people are likely to be most understanding of the struggles that you face.

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