Anxiety and Social Interactions


One behavior that I would like to modify through a reinforcement therapy schedule is my anxiety when it comes to short social interactions. While I am lovely when it comes to communicating with people over the internet through email or messaging services, talking directly to a person often sets off a certain level of anxiety resulting in me either speaking too quickly, pausing numerous times during the conversation, or otherwise “drawing a blank” so to speak when it comes to what I am supposed to say next.

Initially, I overlooked the development of this type of behavior since I did not have any problems when it came to communicating with friends or family members. Over time, it became increasingly apparent that when I am thrust into new social situations where I do not know the individual, I am communicating with, my ability to articulate my thoughts or even usually speak seems to simply vanish. I am left stuttering and appearing overly shy when, in reality, I am actually a relatively liberal individual.

This adverse form of behavior is problematic since I am likely to be thrust into a wide variety of situations where I will need to communicate and collaborate with people that I do not know. If this issue is not addressed in the future, it is likely that it will adversely affect my capacity to develop meaningful relationships with not only my co-workers but any other individual that I may come into contact with in the future.

Analyzing the Origin of the Problem

Since this issue is primarily isolated to instances of communication between complete strangers and me, this level of social anxiety most likely came about through some form of learned behavior that I internalized. After going over the work of Niles, Burklund, Arch, Lieberman, Saxbe & Craske (2014), which delved into the various forms of social anxiety and their possible origins, I was able to determine that the source of my anxiety was due to Toleman’s theory of learned behavior which was adapted to connect with the present-day social isolation experienced by many individuals in the “internet age.” Niles et al. (2015) explained this theoretical perspective by stating that exposure to social situations is essential in order to develop an individual’s capacity for communication. This is due to the fact that social exposure comes with a certain level of learning when it comes to dealing with a particular situation.

The greater level of exposure, the more learning occurs, resulting in an individual developing the necessary knowledge regarding the nuances and expectations associated with everyday interactions.

My problem, though, originates from a distinct lack of direct social interaction since I have grown up “socially isolated,” as stated by Norton, Abbott, Norberg & Hunt (2015). The basis behind this assertion is connected to my behavior, where I spend most of my time indoors and interact mainly through the medium of the internet. My learned behavior is oriented through the lens of online interaction, which can be planned and taken at leisure rather than the spontaneity that is seen in face to face conversations. The end result is that my general unfamiliarity with standard methods of communication has led to a certain level of anxiety when it comes to situations that require me to interact with people directly.

Strategies to Alter Behavior

Through the work of Tillfors, Andersson, Ekselius, Furmark, Lewenhaupt, Karlsson, and Carlbring (2011), it was noted that various types of adverse behavioral phenomena in relation to social anxiety are at times the result of learned behavior and can be similarly addressed. It is based on this assertion that the best method for me to alter my action would be by merely overwriting my current anxiety with newly learned behavior.

One way in which this can be brought about would be through gradual exposure to more social situations until I reach a point where I no longer manifest the same levels of anxiety. My therapy schedule, in this case, would revolve around a gradual progression wherein three days out of every week, I attempt to talk to someone that is known through a mutual acquaintance via a face to face conversation.

This can be achieved by talking to my friends regarding my current dilemma and having them bring individuals that they know that I do not know, and having them talk to me. These initial conversations should be in a relatively controlled setting (ex: a coffee shop) where I will attempt to initially engage them in small talk. Eventually, from an initial three days a week and one-hour conversation per day, I could increase it to 5 days a week with 2 to 3-hour sessions with different individuals. By performing this particular practice, I should be able to develop a sufficient level of experience when it comes to everyday social communication to the extent that my problem should be resolved.

How Difficult is it to Apply Behavior Therapy to my own Behavior and Why?

The inherent problem with applying behavior therapy to my personal behavior is that there are no external means of ensuring that I am on the right path. When it comes to normal methods of psychological intervention for resolving adverse behavioral characteristics, there is normally a psychologist or a group on hand (ex: Alcoholics Anonymous) which acts as a means of ensuring that the negative behaviors continue to be addressed via the prescribed methodology chosen.

In my case, there is no external factor that observes my behavior, nor is there another person monitoring my progress. As such, whether there is progress or regression is entirely based on how I choose to apply myself towards resolving my current behavioral dilemma. Unfortunately, as seen in the study of Schulz, Stolz & Berger (2014), regression is highly likely in cases where there is a distinct lack of external observation or influence in applying behavioral therapy towards adverse behavior. One example that is often cited in this case is when someone attempts to stop smoking or to stop drinking without the use of any external factor to limit or control one’s behavior.

While there have been successful cases of this occurring, regression towards the act of smoking or drinking is likely given the sheer level of both chemical and psychological dependence towards the act of smoking and drinking. This perspective may not necessarily apply to my current anxiety towards social interactions, but it does have a certain level of familiarity given the amount of time (years) in which this type of learned behavior has developed and, as such, it is unlikely that it will disappear overnight. Taking this into consideration, it is likely that while I may be able to address my current behavioral problem with the reinforcement therapy that has been presented, it may take some time due to instances of regression.

Reference List

Niles, A. N., Burklund, L. J., Arch, J. J., Lieberman, M. D., Saxbe, D., & Craske, M. G. (2014). Cognitive Mediators of Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder: Comparing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Behavior Therapy, 45(5), 664-677.

Norton, A. R., Abbott, M. J., Norberg, M. M., & Hunt, C. (2015). A Systematic Review of Mindfulness and Acceptance-Based Treatments for Social Anxiety Disorder. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 71(4), 283-301.

Schulz, A., Stolz, T., & Berger, T. (2014). Internet-based individually versus group guided self-help treatment for a social anxiety disorder: protocol of a randomized controlled trial. BMC Psychiatry, 14(1), 1-15.

Tillfors, M., Andersson, G., Ekselius, L., Furmark, T., Lewenhaupt, S., Karlsson, A., & Carlbring, P. (2011). A Randomized Trial of Internet-Delivered Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder in High School Students. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 40(2), 147-157.