What Can I Do About Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What Can I Do About Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Winter is coming, and so too are shorter days and longer periods of darkness. For a sizable percentage of people (~3% of the Canadian population1), this change to our environment can bring about a seasonal form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD. Those who experience SAD experience an onset of clinical depression in the fall season, which spontaneously improves in the summer, a cycle that usually repeats for at least two calendar years in succession. Interestingly, the symptoms of SAD are not typical of non-seasonal depression.2 Depressed mood, loss of interest in activities, and withdrawal from social interaction is common to both, but where typical depression usually includes insomnia, anxiety and reduced food intake, SAD is characterized by hypersomnia, carbohydrate craving and increased body weight. The symptoms look superficially like seasonal rhythms in animals as they prepare to hibernate.

 

In fact, many of the same biological mechanisms which prompt the onset of hibernation in animals like bears are similar to the processes which give rise to SAD in humans. This is because most organisms have internal body clocks which track daily and annual cycles in the external world. Our body clocks, for example, are capable of tracking how long the sun is present each day. While we don’t yet fully understand why this process affects mood, we know that SAD is associated with day length because data from different American states reveal that the incidence of SAD are higher in more northern states.3 This is also true of the ‘winter blues’, or sub-clinical SAD. We also know that the issue is in terms of day length and not the amount of sunshine a location gets because Calgary (~51° N) has much more winter sunshine than Vancouver (~49° N) but similar daylengths and population rates of SAD. This is particularly important information for us Canadians who live north of the 49th parallel. We may get plenty of sun, but we still experience shorter days.

 

So, as we get less daytime during these seasons, is it possible to trick our body clocks into thinking the days are longer?

 

Remarkably, one of the most effective remedies for SAD is bright light treatment. Introducing bright light in the Fall and Winter can prevent or reverse SAD, with roughly 2/3rd of SAD patients responding to the treatment4. The research indicates that it is as effective an antidepressant as any pharmaceutical used to treat SAD and when used correctly is accompanied by relatively few possible side effects. Importantly, however, bright light therapy may trigger mania in individuals with bipolar disorder5, so please consult with your doctor before considering the treatment. The minimum effective dose is approximately 2500 lux, which is about the intensity of sunrise outdoors.6 Bright light treatments, however, will often exceed 10,000 lux. Indoor, room lighting typically emits 500 lux and is thus an ineffective treatment. Those susceptible to SAD can purchase bright light-emitting visors or, alternatively, there are bright light lamps which allow one to sit or work in an environment containing ambient day-time levels of light. These devices can also be used strategically to ease certain sleep disorders and help realign one’s body clocks during jet lag.7

 

Because many of the symptoms of Major Depression and SAD are shared and the two disorders are often comorbid, traditional psychotherapy is also a highly effective treatment for seasonal depression.2 Research using group-based cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, has demonstrated antidepressant effects which nearly mimic 30 minutes of 10,000 lux bright light treatment.8 Health professionals who utilize CBT teach skills to those suffering from various forms of depression which help to change their perceptions of the world.9 Cultivating emotional regulation, developing personal coping strategies, and learning to disrupt patterns of negative thoughts and actions are key constructs of CBT. Bright light treatment and psychotherapies like CBT may be used alongside one another, as well as in conjunction with other therapies like medication or mindfulness practices. Research also suggests that people whose depressive symptoms look more like the ‘winter blues’ than seasonal depression should improve their diets by limiting starches and sugars, exercise frequently, manage stress (especially around the holidays), increase social contact and connection, and spend more time outdoors.10

 

Finally, vitamin D, an essential building block for our bones and muscles, is in short supply in the Canadian Fall and Winter months. A deficiency of vitamin D has been associated with depressive symptoms and some research suggests that taking vitamin D before winter darkness sets in may help prevent symptoms of SAD.11 During the winter months, those living roughly 33 degrees north or 30 degrees south of the equator synthesize very little, if any, vitamin D.12 People beyond these latitudes rely primarily on eating fish and egg yolk or taking nutritional supplements to get the vitamin D needed.13 It is important that most of us, and perhaps especially people experiencing SAD, ensure that we have sufficient levels of vitamin D during these darker months. Thankfully, the Canadian government acknowledges this problem and mandatorily requires that products like cow’s milk, margarine, and calcium-fortified beverages have vitamin D added to them.14 Planning a mid-winter vacation may be valuable for its increased light exposure and onset of vitamin D synthesis, and who doesn’t like taking a vacation as a form of treatment?15

 

Thankfully, there are multiple options for Seasonal Affective Disorder which allow for more personalized treatment plans. If you’re feeling blue this Fall and Winter, Alongside You offers an abundance of counselling and well-being services that can help you if you identify with any of the discussion above regarding SAD.

 

If we can be of help to you, please don’t hesitate to ask. This is why Alongside You exists – because we believe that everyone is worth it. Feel free to contact us to see how we can help!

 

Adam Manz

Adam Manz recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Psychology. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology while maintaining a love for meditation, podcasts, and hiking. Adam is volunteering with us here at Alongside You and we’re glad to have him on board!

 

References

1Body and Health Canada. (2019). Seasonal affective disorder. Retrieved from https://bodyandhealth.canada.com/healthfeature/gethealthfeature/seasonal-affective-disorder.

7Burgess, H. J., Crowley, S. J., Gazda, C. J., Fogg, L. F., & Eastman, C. I. (2003). Preflight adjustment to eastward travel: 3 days of advancing sleep with and without morning bright light. Journal of Biological Rhythms18(4), 318–328. doi: 10.1177/0748730403253585

9Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Seasonal affective disorder. Retrieved from https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/seasonal-affective-disorder-2/.

5Chan, P. K., Lam, R. W., Perry, K. F. (1994). Mania precipitated by light therapy for patients with SAD (letter). Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 55:454

4Golden, R. N., Gaynes, B. N., Ekstrom, R. D., Hamer, R. M., Jacobsen, F. M., Suppes, T., … Nemeroff, C. B. (2005). The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: A review and meta-analysis of the evidence. American Journal of Psychiatry162(4), 656–662. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.162.4.656

13Health Link BC. (2019). Food sources of calcium and vitamin D. Retrieved from https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/sources-calcium-vitamin-d.

3Horowitz, S. (2008). Shedding light on seasonal affective disorder. Alternative and Complementary Therapies14(6), 282–287. doi: 10.1089/act.2008.14608

14Janz, T., & Pearson, C. (2015). Health at a glance: Vitamin D blood levels of Canadians. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-624-x/2013001/article/11727-eng.htm#n2.

11Kerr, D. C., Zava, D. T., Piper, W. T., Saturn, S. R., Frei, B., & Gombart, A. F. (2015). Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in healthy young adult women. Psychiatry Research227(1), 46–51. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.02.016

10National Health Services. (2018). Treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/treatment/.

8Rohan, K. J., Mahon, J. N., Evans, M., Ho, S.-Y., Meyerhoff, J., Postolache, T. T., & Vacek, P. M. (2015). Randomized trial of cognitive-behavioral therapy versus light therapy for seasonal affective disorder: Acute outcomes. American Journal of Psychiatry172(9), 862–869. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.14101293

12Stewart, A. E., Roecklein, K. A., Tanner, S., & Kimlin, M. G. (2014). Possible contributions of skin pigmentation and vitamin D in a polyfactorial model of seasonal affective disorder. Medical Hypotheses83(5), 517–525. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2014.09.010

6Tam, E. M., Lam, R. W., & Levitt, A. J. (1995). Treatment of seasonal affective disorder: A review. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry40(8), 457–466. doi:10.1177/070674379504000806

15Targum, S. D., & Rosenthal, N. (2008). Seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry (Edgmont)5(5), 31–33.

2The National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml.

How can I Support my Child with Anxiety?

How can I Support my Child with Anxiety?

It can be difficult for a parent to watch their child struggle with big worries. As parents, we want to be able to fix our child’s problems – preferably this would happen quickly and easily. If we can’t fix what concerns them (which we often cannot), we are left to support the child through their anxiety. This may sound simplistic, but I assure you, it’s not. Parental support is vitally significant for the child, and often, empowering for the parent. As the saying goes — a good parent prepares the child for the path, not the path for the child. Approached with gentleness and kindness, encouraging support can be a great gift to their developing identity and self-confidence.

 

Practical Ways Parents Can Support Their Anxious Child’s Wellbeing

 

Children require consistent, predictable routines in order to flourish1. These don’t have to be rigid or excessive, but a general structure for the course of a day allows a child to predict what comes next, and to prepare for it. For example, create a rhythm to the bedtime routine that becomes so predictable and soothing that it lulls the child to sleep (figuratively speaking). When a child knows what time they go to bed, and the events that lead up to it, they can begin to gear down and relax, knowing that the adult in charge will be helping this process the same way every night. Avoid screen time two hours prior to bedtime as the emitted blue light inhibits the release of melatonin (the hormone responsible for sleep cycles and circadian rhythm).2 Instead, read books together, discuss a moment of gratitude, ask questions about their day, or speak words of affirmation to your child.

During daytime hours, a child’s pace of life should be slow and sustainable. Children need plenty of time for play and quiet exploration.3 Children who are expected to run at a pace that is beyond their capacity may experience an increase in anxiety. As an adult, you may have a clear perspective on what is manageable for your child. They may be excited to join five different sports teams this fall, but you are the one with the foresight to understand that, within a short time, this may lead to them feeling overwhelmed. This, of course, evolves as children get older, and every child is truly unique in what they can tolerate – much like their adults!

Lastly, create space in your day (or week) to connect with your child. Follow your child’s innate interests and spend one-on-one time enjoying what they do.

Some ideas to get you started:

    • If they’re interested in food, bake cookies
    • If they love sports, kick a soccer ball around, just for fun
    • If they enjoy physical activity, go on a bike ride or for a walk
    • If they’re into music, listen to a new song they’re excited about and show them what you know on the guitar or piano
    • If they’re interested in mechanics, have them help you change the oil, or open the hood of the car to look around together

Intentional investment of time spent with your child will pay dividends when it comes to their behaviour, but more importantly, to their sense of belonging and connection. The attachment that is formed from these positive connections bolster a child’s confidence to face the world, and increases resilience to stress.4,5,6

 

Ways Parents Can Emotionally Support Their Anxious Child’s Wellbeing

 

Emotional support is an extension of practical support. A parent may become overwhelmed by their own feelings (of guilt, or frustration, or panic) when they see their child in the throes of anxiety. It may be important to take a moment to check in with yourself before running to the aide of your child. First, accept that your child is feeling anxious, and notice your own feelings about this. Give yourself some time to regulate your own emotions. When you feel ready, approach your child to validate their feelings, and to name what you see happening for them. For example, “I see that your fists are clenched and your eyes are wide. These must be big worries for you.” Sit with them as they feel the weight of their worry without trying to rush them, or brush it off. Once the child has walked through the experience of their big feelings of worry, re-direct them to calming activities.

Some ideas to get you started:

    • run a warm bath
    • go for a walk together
    • somatic breathing exercises
    • progressive muscle relaxation

Lastly, show your child that you, their hero, can make mistakes, do hard things, go on to survive the experience, and thrive. It can be very helpful to practice self-compassion in a way that is visible to the child.7 For example, if you find yourself running late at the school drop-off, model taking a few deep breaths, smile, and acknowledge, “Wow, we sure are running late today! I can’t get it right every day though, and that’s okay! Today we might be late, but maybe tomorrow will be different.”

It can be soothing for a child to observe their parents set boundaries that guard their own time and self-care in fact, it reinforces that it is acceptable for the child to do the same.

If you or your child would like to come in to discuss their big worries, or yours, please contact us and we would be happy to help! I’d love to work with you while I complete my internship. We also have a whole roster of Registered Clinical Counsellors available to work with you as well.

 

References

 

  1. Spagnola, M., & Fiese, B. H. (2007). Family Routines and Rituals: A Context for Development in the Lives of Young Children. Infants & Young Children, 20(4), 284–299. org/10.1097/01.IYC.0000290352.32170.5a
  2. Fletcher, F. E., Conduit, R., Foster-Owens, M. D., Rinehart, N. J., Rajaratnam, S. M. W., & Cornish, K. M. (2018). The Association Between Anxiety Symptoms and Sleep in School-Aged Children: A Combined Insight From the Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire and Actigraphy. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 16(2), 169–184. https://doi.org/10.1080/15402002.2016.1180522
  3. Mrnjaus, C. (2013). The Child’s Right to Play?! Croatian Journal of Education, 16(1), 217-233.
  4. Neufeld, G., & Maté, G. (2004). Hold on to your kids: Why parents matter.
  5. Priest, J. B. (2013a). Anxiety disorders and the quality of relationships with friends, relatives, and romantic partners: Anxiety disorders and relationship quality. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 78–88. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.21925
  6. Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York, NY: Basic Books
  7. Neff, K. (2013). Self compassion. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

“I love that it gets dark at 3 pm, that it’s pouring rain constantly, and that I haven’t seen the sun in 4 months!” said no one ever. Although some people may prefer the cold winter weather, there are a lot of us who are counting down the hours until patio season starts up again (okay, maybe that’s just me). So, until then, we are binge-watching TV, sleeping in, indulging in comfort foods, and pretty much avoiding the outdoors unless we absolutely have to go outside. The different seasons and the weather impact what we do and how we feel, which is why many of us prefer indoor activities during this time of year and for the next few months to come. However, on a rare day that the sunlight does shine through or when summer finally rolls around, we are quick to get outside and enjoy the sun. We may notice that our mood improves when the sun comes out and it can be a bit easier to get things done. Other times, we notice that when it’s dark and rainy, it’s a little harder to get out of bed, be alert, or even feel happy.

If you’re relating to this post right now, you’re not alone! Approximately, 17% of Canadians are also feeling pretty low during the winter months (CMHA, 2013). You can thank Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for these mood changes, which is a form of depression that occurs at certain times of the year, specifically between September/October and April/May. It affects anyone and everyone but is more common amongst women, individuals between 15-55, people who live further up north or farther down south away from the equator, or individuals with a family history of SAD or other types of depression (HealthLinkBC, 2017).

 

How Do I Know If Seasonal Affective Disorder is affecting me?

 
You may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder if you identify with these statements:

  • I feel sad, moody, or anxious
  • I feel tired or slowed down all the time
  • I’ve lost of interest in work, friends, or interests
  • I’m gaining weight
  • I’m craving carbohydrates such as “comfort foods” like bread or pasta
  • I’m having trouble concentrating
  • I’ve been experiencing changes in my sleep, such as sleeping too much or not enough

(CMHA, 2013; HealthLinkBC, 2017)

 

Why Do We Struggle With SAD?

 
But why is SAD even an issue to begin with? It is thought that the lack of sunlight creates a change in the chemicals in our brain, specifically serotonin, which is responsible for regulating our mood. Additionally, because it is darker, it can signal to our brain that it’s time to sleep which can cause an increase of melatonin in our brain, which is responsible for regulating our sleep/wake rhythm. The truth is that we’re not completely sure why it happens, just that it does, and to many people in our community.

 

What Can I Do About SAD?

 
It’s great to identify if we have SAD. One of the main ways to help yourself if you’re struggling with SAD is to increase your exposure to the right wavelength of light. This can include:

  • Spending more time outside during daylight hours
  • Opening the curtains or blinds during the day
  • Rearranging the space that you are in to allow more sunlight to enter
  • Arranging office/household furniture so you can sit close to a window
  • Adding lamps into your space
  • Using a SAD Lamp

(CMHA, 2013)

Counselling can help with the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder by giving us a better understanding of how SAD affects us as individuals and helping us to cope with the effects that come about during this time of year. It can also be useful in helping us to look at our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and how they influence our mood and can aid us in creating strategies for making changes in these areas. In addition to this, being able to talk to someone who is able to empathize and listen to us can be very beneficial.

If you’re struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, you’re not alone and you don’t have to go it alone. Seeing a Registered Clinical Counsellor or one of us counselling interns can be a great help!

If you’re not sure if what you’re struggling with is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), please go to your family doctor who can help you determine if this is what you’re dealing with, and can refer you to a specialist if needed.

In the meantime, we’re here and we’d love to support you until the sun comes back! Feel free to contact us!

 

References:


Find Help Now. (2013). Retrieved from https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/seasonal-affective-disorder-2

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). (2017, May). Retrieved from https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/hw169553

How Can I Improve My Social Anxiety?

How Can I Improve My Social Anxiety?

In my previous blog post, I talked a bit about what social anxiety is and the many strengths that people prone to social anxiety often show. I recommend reading that post first, but as a little re-cap, people who develop social anxiety are often highly compassionate, conscientious and creative. They tend to feel deeply which can either lead to anxiety or an ability to creatively explore their world with curiosity. What often stands in the way of the ability to creatively explore their world is an intense fear that they are not good enough. If you’re struggling with social anxiety, I’d like to offer some strategies to move past that fear while maintaining your many strengths!

 

How to Hold on to the Good Traits of Social Anxiety and Work Towards Growth

 

Get out of your own head and turn your attention outward

When we feel socially anxious, we tend to turn inward and start monitoring ourselves. Thoughts like “why did I just say that,” or “what if I just offended her,” circle around and around in our heads and take up all of our mental energy so we often then freeze and can’t think of anything to say.

 

When you notice this happening, turn your attention outward. Focus on who you’re talking to and listen closely to what they’re saying. This takes our focus away from what we think we’ve done wrong and frees up our mental capacity to be able to engage in the conversation with natural curiosity. Studies show that doing this dramatically increases a person’s likability, and also combats our fears.

 

Expose yourself to social situations and allow confidence to catch up with you

Don’t wait until you feel ready to give that toast or attend that party! Usually, when we start doing something, our mood follows – you’re more adaptable than you think. If it doesn’t go well the first time, keep practicing. If you persevere, the skill and confidence will catch up with you.

 

This allows you to refute the two lies your anxiety is telling you:

  1. The worst-case scenario will definitely happen
  2. You can’t handle what life throws at you

When we face social fears, we learn that we can live through it and it’s never as bad as we think.

 

tip: sign up for an introductory improv class. In improv, there is no script and you’re put in a situation where you’re forced to make mistakes in front of others. Sounds terrifying right? I thought so too so I tried it at the height of my social anxiety and it ended up being surprisingly safe. At first, it was embarrassing but then I realized everyone was being embarrassed too. Improv helps us to develop the skills to navigate unstructured social situations that cause anxiety in the real world.

 

If you drink at a social engagement, do it because you want to, not because you have to

A lot of people drink to make themselves feel more confident in social engagements; after all, it is called “liquid courage.” The problem is that if you do have a good time while drinking, the tendency is to give the alcohol the credit, not you. In reality, that person who was having a good time navigating an otherwise anxiety-provoking situation was you without inhibition. You have that confidence within yourself and you can access it with practice; in facing your fears, you don’t need the alcohol.

 

Dare to Be Average (Dr. David Burns)

A lot of anxiety comes from our belief that we need to be perfect in social situations. We believe that if we stumble over our words or pause in a conversation, people will see our flaws and reject us. There’s a whole list of “musts” that come with that belief:

“I must be entertaining”

“I must sound smart”

“I must carry the conversation for both of us”

Everyone pauses in conversations, loses their train of thought and says something awkward from time to time; it makes us human and it’s endearing. Dr. David Burns encourages us to “dare to be average.” He reminds us that people are attracted to people who own their averageness because most of us are average. It’s relatable, it’s honest and it’s human. As Dr. Kristin Neff says, “we’re all on this long, awkward journey together.” If you’ve experienced an embarrassing moment, a million other people have had that same embarrassing moment – you’re not alone.

 

Create a structure for yourself in social engagements

Simon Thompson and Ronald M. Rapee (2002) found that in structured social interactions, people with social anxiety showed a much higher level of social skill than in unstructured social engagements. Dealing with the unpredictable creates anxiety for many people so next time you’re in an anxiety-provoking social setting, create a structure for yourself. Dr. Hendricks suggests giving yourself little missions at parties such as taking to 3 people you don’t know and finding out as much as you can about them. This creates some predictability and some direction in the social interaction.

 

Dr. Hendrickson’s Tips for Making New friendships

a) Repetition – Show up!

It takes an average of 6 hangouts for someone to consider a person a friend. Many people with social anxiety become discouraged when they work up the courage to go to a social engagement and don’t come away with a new friend. But in reality, this almost never happens for anyone. The way to make new friends is to keep showing up and to see the same people over and over again. Some options might be joining a fitness class with consistent members, dropping the kids off at school and saying hello to the same parents each day or going to a café at the same time each day.

b) Self-disclosure

Many people with social anxiety have trouble talking about themselves for a variety of reasons that may feel really valid after past hurts. Dr. Hendrickson urges us to push through and to gradually share a bit about what you think, feel and do with a person you want to be friends with. Friendships are reciprocal, so gradually the other person will begin to share about themselves as well. People are generally interested in what the world looks like from another’s point of view.

c) Just be kind

Many people think they need to appear confident and competent in order to make friends. In reality, people are drawn to warmth, kindness and trustworthiness. You don’t have to appear confident, just be nice and curious.

 

Practice self-compassion

Shame feeds social anxiety, but if you can think about yourself in the same way you’d think about another person you care about, it will help you to forgive yourself when you make a social blunder that feels so painful and isolating. Dr. Kristin Neff has an amazing website full of free exercises to help build self-compassion. My favourite is the self-compassion break which is a guided mindfulness exercise that takes only 5 minutes.

Find the exercises here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises

 

Counselling

Social anxiety can be completely unbearable and painful and so it can be hard to take any of the above steps on your own. A counsellor can help work with you, at a pace that feels safe for you, to remove the blocks of shame and fear that are inhibiting you from living the life you want to live. If you’re struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a counsellor who can help you with this. You’re too important to deprive the world of getting to know you!

 

 

Sources

Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.

Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf

Neff, K. (2018). Self Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety

Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6 · 

What is Social Anxiety?

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is an intense fear about one or more social situations. It can be generalized to all social situations, or it can be activated in specific situations, such as having a conversation, meeting new people, being observed while eating, drinking, walking, etc., or performing in front of others, such as giving a speech or speaking in front of a class. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety is the third largest mental health care condition in the world today. So, if you’re dealing with social anxiety and feeling alone, statistics show that you’re not; at least 7% of the population is right there with you!

 

Dr. David Moscovitch, a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Waterloo, discovered that social anxiety is more than just a fear of being embarrassed. Rather, it’s an urge to cover up a perceived flaw. People with social anxiety believe that something is fatally wrong with them that makes them socially undesirable, and they fear that this perceived flaw will be seen by others. Finally, they believe that when this flaw is discovered by others, they’ll be humiliated and rejected.

 

Here’s an example of a situation that someone with social anxiety might find themselves in, and their thought process:

 

Joe is an average guy, but he believes he’s really boring and that if people found out how boring he is, they won’t like him. One day while Joe was talking to his friend Martin there is a long pause in the conversation. Now, long pauses in conversation with people we’re comfortable with are pretty normal! In this case, however, Joe perceives the long pause as an awkward silence, and believes that the awkward silence confirms his worst suspicions that he is boring and at fault for the awkwardness. His brain became flooded with thoughts about how Martin must be noticing and judging Joe as a boring person, who he’d rather not be friends with. Joe’s mind is filled with even more anxiety, and he can’t think of what to say to Martin. It’s so overwhelming that he can’t bear the idea of being placed in this situation again where he might be judged as boring, so he proceeds to avoid social interactions as much as possible. In reality, Martin didn’t think Joe was boring, and he wasn’t judging him, he was lost in his own train of thought and didn’t think much of the “awkward” silence at all.

 

This is why Dr. Moscovitch stresses that Joe’s fatal flaw only exists in Joe’s mind. He perceives himself to be boring, and so finds information in the conversation to confirm that his perception is true. People with social anxiety are extra sensitive to social blunders, to the point where they often believe they’re the only ones who make them. The truth is that social blunders are part of what makes us human. Everyone is boring some of the time, we all trip over our words and we all have awkward moments. As Dr. Ellen Hendrickson states in her book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, “nothing is wrong with you, it’s just the blemishes of being a person.”

 

While it’s normal for everyone to feel socially self-conscious from time to time, “social anxiety is like self-consciousness on steroids”, as Dr. Hendrickson says – it’s a big and heavy feeling, and often very tricky to work around. Because of this, people who have social anxiety are often quite distressed and unable to function as fully in their lives as they’d like. When self-consciousness reaches this level of social anxiety, most people benefit from getting help with regulating it.

 

How Does Social Anxiety Work?

 

Social anxiety works in a cycle of fear and avoidance. People begin to avoid the social interactions that make them feel anxious because the anxiety they feel is so painful and unbearable. They understandably want to protect themselves from the trauma of feeling rejected or inadequate. Unfortunately, avoiding social situations only makes things worse because when we’re not interacting with our source of fear, the fear increases and becomes much scarier. On top of that, when we avoid certain social situations we’re also unable to practice the social skills necessary to get through them and the associated anxieties. When we feel we don’t have the necessary skills for something, we continue to avoid it and the cycle of fear and avoidance continues.

 

Are There Good Things About Social Anxiety?

 

Many people with social anxiety believe there’s something wrong with them and want to change their personality altogether. They often believe that the opposite of social anxiety is confidence. In her book, Dr. Ellen Hendrickson points out that people with social anxiety tend to have a lot of desirable traits. They’re so anxious because they desperately want to connect, and so are sensitive to the needs of others to such an extreme that it becomes a fault. In fact, psychopathy; not confidence, is the opposite of social anxiety.

 

People with social anxiety tend to be very conscientious, compassionate and caring, open to new experiences and agreeable. They have all the traits that would make a person socially desirable, they merely are inhibited by fear and an excess of shame. It’s, therefore, best to work through social anxiety by removing the fear and developing confidence on top of the amazing characteristics that are already there! It’s a process of learning to be yourself without fear. Dr. Hendrickson points out that your true self is the self you are without fear. Think about the person you are when you’re most comfortable, maybe when you’re with a pet or with a person you trust or doing an activity you enjoy. That’s who your real self is, and that person is lovable and worthy of connection.

 

How Can We Move Past Fear and Shame and Live the Life We Want?

 

My next blog post will detail eight strategies for working through social anxiety. In the meantime, I recommend picking up Dr. Ellen Hendrickson’s book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. It is also a great idea to talk to a counsellor and see how you can work together to come up with a plan to work towards quieting that inner critic. For any question, feel free to contact us.

 

Sources

Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.

 

Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

 

Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf

 

Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

 

Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety

 

Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6 · 

Kids Anxiety: What Can Parents Learn From Them

Kids Anxiety: What Can Parents Learn From Them

An interesting piece about “The big myth about teenage anxiety” ran in the New York Times this week, authored by a fairly prominent psychiatrist – which you can find here.

 

The essence of Dr. Friedman’s editorial is that much of the research showing a rise in teen anxiety is not conclusive, which from a scientific perspective is unsurprising. Many of these studies rely on self-reports, which, though scientifically imperfect, offer an important window into human experience – something we as mental health professionals consider of paramount importance. A better understanding of what we deal with internally and externally on a daily basis (and the meaning we make of it) is essential to better understanding ourselves. Dr. Friedman also encourages readers to remember that phones are not necessarily to blame for anxiety, as much as it may seem that way. He points out that anxiety is normal, and that our brains are quite well-equipped to handle it.

 

The article is nuanced, and while I would hesitate to back up many of the things Dr. Friedman says, one important distinction he makes is between actual anxiety disorders and day-to-day anxiety and worry – something most teens are virtually guaranteed to experience. Social media and the internet have indeed made the social world more complex for teens to navigate – as many have noted, there is no “escape” from the reach of the internet anymore, and it is more than understandable that teens are often glued to their phones. Teens are under a lot of stress developmentally, socially and physically, and Dr. Friedman is careful to point out that there will and should be plenty of anxiety in teenage life.

 

The crux of the matter then is not eliminating or avoiding anxiety (avoidance, of course, will actually make the anxiety seem stronger than it is), but focusing on what we can learn to do in the face of anxiety. Teens can learn that anxiety is normal, learn to notice bodily sensations that arise, learn to stay grounded, and even learn to appreciate their anxiety for protecting them.

 

Many parents are highly distressed when they learn their teen or child is struggling with anxiety, and I would encourage those parents to remember how normal that is. Your job is not to eliminate or protect from that anxiety, but rather to be with your child as far as they will let you, and creating as best you can a space of rest from it. There are many anxiety management techniques that can be learned to reduce day-to-day anxiety, but one of the best things to have is a secure relationship within which you do not need to be anxious. I can’t stress enough the impact of having someone with whom you feel safe to just be you, warts and all.

 

It’s no secret that I (along with many others here at Alongside You) am a big fan of attachment parenting, an idea propagated by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and brain researcher Daniel Siegel, among many others. I am also a big fan of parents taking care of themselves before they worry too much about taking care of their children, for several reasons. So I should mention that your anxiety about your kids’ anxiety is incredibly valuable: it tells you how important it is to you that your kids are safe and happy. This is wonderful, and you also should get to know that perfectly normal anxiety really well within your own safe relationships, because your kids will use you as a compass point to manage their own anxiety. If you have a good relationship with your anxieties, you will be very much ahead of the game in helping your child or teen with theirs. Normalizing our own experience of anxiety reduces it in our kids, and also shows them that they’re not alone.

 

Parenting is a tough job, and if you’re reading this, one that I imagine you take seriously. Best of luck, and as always, feel free to ask lots of questions and seek lots of support. If we can be a support to you, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re all in this together.