Anxiety Might Be Getting in the Way of Your Social Life

(Neil Webb/Getty Images)

Neuroscientists at Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have identified a brain region that links anxiety to low social status — and they’ve discovered that a med may be able to give both your brain and social life a boost.

The researchers used high-anxious rats for their experiment —  since humans and animals establish social ranks through competition – and put them through a series of behavioral tests. They paid close attention to the area of the brain referred to as the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with motivation, reward and depression in both animals and humans.

As a result, the anxiety-ridden rats were shown to have reduced energy metabolism, which in turn affected the mitochondria, organelles that are responsible for breathing and energy production. However, a drug with vitamin B3 that was designed to enhance mitochondria improved the nervous rats’ sociability and status.

“Social interactions are immensely complex,” said lead researcher Carmen Sandi in a press release. “They involve so many factors that it is difficult to examine the impact of each in isolation. However, this is an exciting finding; it shows a brain mechanism whereby anxious personality affects social competitiveness of individuals, and it points to very promising directions in this field.”

“Social anxiety is characterized by fear and avoidance of social situations, and what that means is that people often have beliefs about themselves and the world around them that just aren’t right,” Evan Mayo-Wilson, DPhil, Assistant Scientist in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Health. “They think that terrible things will happen if they encounter these social situations.”

While overcoming social anxiety takes time and patience, here are a few practical strategies that may help break this distorted thinking pattern:

Consider talk therapy

“We have done research on different forms of therapy and the most effective seems to be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),” says Dr. Mayo-Wilson. He explains that a patient will be instructed to practice what is discussed during sessions, giving them “an opportunity to disconfirm those ideas and to check whether their fears really do play out.” However, a qualified therapist who specializes in CBT for anxiety disorders will be able to “structure those things in a way that makes them helpful rather than harmful.”

Nibble on more fermented foods

Earlier this year, researchers from William & Mary concluded that those who eat more fermented foods (which contain probiotics) have fewer symptoms of social anxiety. “It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety,” said professors Matthew Hilimire in a press release. “I think that it is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.”

Grab your yoga mat

A 2014 study from Queen’s University found that exercise and relaxation activities, such as yoga, may have a positive impact on the way people see the world around them. Researchers used point-light displays, which gives the illusion of a human being that someone could view as either facing towards them (which is more threatening) or facing away. “We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill,” said study author Adam Heenan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Clinical Psychology in a press release. “The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.”

Dr. Mayo-Wilson adds a word of caution regarding this current animal study from Switzerland. “My worry in looking at this research is I think too often we’ve bought into this idea that mental health disorders are organic problems and, therefore, they need pharmacological solutions,” he states. “I think drugs are useful for some people, but I worry that in emphasizing that the brain is a living organism with electrical and chemical signals, we de-emphasize the importance of behavioral change and of psychological interventions.”

In conclusion, he wants to convey the message that people have the ability to do something about this disorder. “I think it’s fine to see the brain is an organism that has physical properties to it, but we change those properties, we can create new neural networks and we can change the brain functions by changing the way we act.”

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