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How Does Social Anxiety Affect the Brain?

0 8 months ago

Research shows changes in important areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, can be affected by social anxiety.

Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is a form of anxiety that causes intense fear and embarrassment in social situations.

For example, it’s common to feel slightly nervous when meeting new people or speaking in public. People with social anxiety disorder can experience a paralyzing fear that makes it hard for them to live everyday life.

We now know that social anxiety disorder affects more than just relationships, work, and other daily activities — it also affects the brain.

Researchers have found that critical areas in the brains of socially anxious people function differently. These areas mainly involve processing emotion, danger, and social cues.

Areas of the brain affected by social anxiety

Differences in five critical brain areas may explain how social anxiety impacts how people think and act. Let’s take a closer look.

Amygdala

The amygdala is the part of the brain that deals with emotions, especially fear, anxiety, and aggression. It controls the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” response when faced with a threat. It’s not surprising then that the amygdala plays a central role in social anxiety.

So how is the amygdala different in people with social anxiety?

The most crucial difference is that the amygdala is often overactive in response to social interactions. For example, when socially anxious people are shown fearful faces, their amygdala lights upTrusted Source — a sign of a heightened fear response.

Oxytocin, a chemical messenger in the brain that decreases anxiety, may have something to do with this.

According to a 2016 studyTrusted Source, when people with social anxiety were given oxytocin, their amygdalas were no longer as active in response to angry or fearful faces. This suggests oxytocin levels are lower in socially anxious people.

Research from 2020Trusted Source notes that the amygdala is slightly larger in people with social anxiety. Even more interesting, the more severe anxiety symptoms, the larger the amygdala is.

This shows that the brains of socially anxious people have adapted to spending more time and energy processing threats and emotions.

Prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved in many aspects of our behavior, including planning, decision-making, and self-control.

In contrast to the amygdala, the PFC is generally underactiveTrusted Source and smallerTrusted Source in those with social anxiety.

There are also significant differences in how the PFC communicates with other brain areas. Typically, the PFC sends signals to the amygdala to keep it from becoming too active during routine social interactions.

But this connection doesn’t work well in people with social anxiety disorder.

Instead of decreasing amygdala activity, the PFC instead increases amygdala activity. This causes fear and anxiety.

The PFC also controls what your brain pays attention to. In socially anxious people, the PFC tends to be more active in response to social threats.

For example, a 2016 studyTrusted Source suggests that people with social anxiety will focus on angry faces more closely and have a more challenging time shifting their attention away from them.

Anterior cingulate cortex

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) plays a vital role in regulating emotions. It’s especially involved in processing social rejection and coping with stress due to social interactions.

The ACC becomes overactive in socially anxious peopleTrusted Source when they look at faces with negative facial expressions. This supports 2019 research showing that people with taijin-kyofusho, a subtype of social anxiety, are overly sensitive to how others perceive them.

The ACC also helps the prefrontal cortex communicate with the amygdala. However, in people with social anxiety, this channel is disrupted. This makes it harder for them to control their emotions and emotional behavior.

These findings help explain why socially anxious people tend to exaggerate the effects of a stressful social situation and place so much importance on social rejection.

To contuinue learning more on how the social anxiety affects various parts of the brain, what cause anxiety and next steps, click here to reacd the orignal article 

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