The Facebook Cure

The Facebook Cure

Every time a new study is published about the perils of social media, and how it makes us more anxious, less social and unhappy, the media snaps it up.  But is it an accurate picture of the research?  Is social media harmful or helpful?  Mark Sainsbury and I discussed this on his Radio Live show this week.  (Click here to listen the interview)

This recent article in the Atlantic is a good example:  “A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom” it reviews research that suggests that increased use of computers, tablets and social media is decreasing students real life social skills, and may even be linked to rises in the levels of social anxiety seen in most western countries.  But any link is at this point correlation at best, and conjecture at worst.

The same article also points out that there are in fact studies that show that introverted or shy people can in fact be helped by online socialising, with people who are anxious about relating in real life feeling more comfortable sharing information on Facebook, and that for some social media use strengthens their social engagement.

Of course there are studies that show negative effects, but even the authors of those studies generally conclude that it’s hard to know whether socially anxious people use social media more as a result of their struggles, or if their use makes their anxiety worse.

In my view, and there is literature to support this, peoples behaviour is consistent: we behave on line as we behave offline.  And most research shows that happy people tend to find social media brings them happiness, and negative people find social media brings them anxiety.

But is doesn’t have to be this way, because what isn’t generally considered in all these studies is how people use social media, as opposed to simply how much.  There is a rich literature that shows that writing about your feelings, in journals and via other methods is helpful, but what is even more helpful is expressing emotions online because for the author “the notion that a close other would read what they had written and potentially respond boosted well-being by increasing perceived social support.”  (Click here for the rest of this article.)

So I’ve decided to test the theory.  As part of my interest in social anxiety (see: I’ve set up a closed Facebook group, for people who want to get support and connect with others who struggle with social anxiety.  It’s free to join, and anyone is welcome.  Just click the image below or go to:

It might even help!

Overcoming Social Anxiety Group


The Confident Mind Podcast

The Confident Mind

Regular readers of this site will be familiar with my side project,  Well last week I launched a re-design of the site along with a free e-book and a new podcast “The Confident Mind“.  Mark and I talked about social anxiety and the podcast on Radio Live today.  (Click here for the interview)

Social anxiety disorder affects around 7{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} of people aged over 18 and can have a crippling effect on their social and work lives as well as leading to panic attacks and isolation. But one of its key challenges is that the anxiety and shyness that people experience can often prevent them from asking for help.

The Confident Mind explores the science, news and reality behind social anxiety as well as looking at the research and the reasoning behind using mindfulness techniques to combat social anxiety. The podcast also includes a series of practical mindfulness exercises which teach the skills to becoming more confident, and interviews with leaders in the field.

People who suffer from social anxiety often avoid situations which cause them to feel anxious or shy – which, in turn, means that although they may well be aware of their issue, they do not want to ask for help. This can become a vicious cycle.

The Confident Mind podcast, along with the website, is designed to reach out to people who suffer with social anxiety and give them the information and practical advice necessary for them to start tackling how they feel.

I’m hoping the website will become a one-stop shop for information, resources and treatment for people who struggle with social anxiety and shyness.

And the full online treament program is now also available.  The course includes video sessions; live online group sessions; interactive webinars which help teach fundamental mindfulness techniques; customised workbooks, audio tracks; and premium video podcasts.

To subscribe to the Confident Mind podcast click here to subscribe via iTunes or click here to subscribe via RSS (non-iTunes feed).  And if you really want to help me out you could click here and give the podcast a review (hopefully positive!) and rating in the iTunes store.

Invisible anxiety

Invisible anxiety

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be invisible? I know I have, it’s one of those games you play as a kid imagining what superpower you would like to have. A recent study showed that the illusion of being invisible helped people overcome their social anxiety when confronted with a crowd. Mark and I talked about this research, and its implications for treatment this Sunday on his Radio Live show.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

In the experiment subjects wore 3-D virtual reality goggles which displayed either video footage of a mannequin when they looked down at their own body, or footage of empty space. People who saw empty space when they looked at their own body experienced an illusion of being invisible, and this illusion was confirmed through a number of different experimental conditions.

For example the experimenters showed that when they brushed the empty space with a brush the subjects experienced the brush touching their own body, and when the experimenters appeared to poke the invisible body with a knife the subjects experienced fear.

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it that our brain can be tricked in this way, but it’s not new. Psychologists have been using illusions to treat difficulties with the after effects of amputation for some time. “Phantom limb syndrome” is a well recognised condition for people who have experienced amputation, where the illusionary pain and irritation of the non-existent limb can be very distressing for people. Using a visual illusion which tricks the brain into seeing the missing body part can help people deal with the pain and adjustment of amputation.

In this recent experiment researchers found people don’t experience social anxiety when they felt invisible. I know from my own experience that people with social anxiety often wish they were invisible and so the idea, at least in theory, makes sense.

So how did they test this? Well the subjects in the experiment were told to look up, where they then saw a small group of people staring at them with serious expression on their faces.  Those who experienced the invisibility condition showed no physiological symptoms of anxiety, as opposed to the subjects who were in the mannequin and visibility (i.e. not invisible) versions.

All very interesting, but how is this actually useful? Well one of the experimental treatments for social anxiety is to help people confront their fears via virtual reality environments. Using this technology to help people gradually expose themselves to their anxiety has shown promising results, and starting with the experience of being invisible when presenting a speech or talk in front of a crowd may be a very helpful place for people to start this exposure therapy.

It may also help us understand the way in which the brain, and the mind, experience and process our understanding of the body in space, and while might not actually be the superpower of invisibility, it’s an amazingly creative way to help people overcome what some can be a very debilitating condition.

The Smell of Fear

The smell of fear

We’ve always been told that dogs can smell fear, but science now suggests that humans can as well, it’s just that we’re not consciously aware of it.  Mark and I discussed this research and some of its implications this week on his Radio Live Sunday morning show.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

The experiment was quite ingenious, albeit slightly gross.  Collect sweat from the armpits, via absorbent pads, of novice (first time) skydivers and expose people in brain scanners to the sweat via a vaporizer.  They compared the results to exposing the same people to non-fearful sweat, collected from the same “skydivers” running on a treadmill. (I told you it was kind of gross.)

They found that two important things happened.  Firstly people were unable to consciously tell the difference between the two sweat samples; and secondly more than half of the participants fear centers, specifically the amygdala and hypothalamus, became more active when they were exposed to the “fearful” sweat samples.

Interesting result, and importantly the first time anyone has shown that humans beings can actually detect and be influenced by pheromones.  However we don’t really understand how, as the biological part of the nasal passages that detect pheromones in other species (the “vomeronasal organ”) is literally disconnected in humans.  It’s also important because it provides an additional mechanism to explain crowd and group behaviours, and perhaps some day to day anxieties too.  But it gets more complicated, the results are unclear as to whether the people whose fear centers lit up actually felt scared.

 “These studies have some big problems. Sweat born from emotion does seem to have a different smell than sweat from exercise. But that doesn’t tell us whether fear-related sweat works differently from, say, happiness-related sweat or the sweat that comes from sexual arousal. “We’re using very crude techniques to study this,” says Denise Chen, a pioneer in this field at the Baylor College of Medicine. Among the limitations of the work is the fact that emotions can be hard to regulate in the lab. “It’s very easy to scare people,” she says, “but it’s not so easy to make them happy.” (Click here for the whole article)

That’s the thing with science of course, it’s hard to know for sure.  It seems most likely that at the very least this response primes other people to feel afraid, and in doing so amplifies any external trigger that may be occurring.  It seems very unlikely that these pheromones could trigger fear in the absence of a fearful stimuli.

However it is one of those results that just feels right, I don’t think there is any doubt that we all influence each other in ways we are only just beginning to comprehend.  And maybe even more so when we’re afraid, and sweaty.

Finding someone

Online dating

Online dating has always had a bit of a bad reputation, sort of seen as more of a dingy singles bar, than a sophisticated dinner party.  But over recent years that has really changed.  Odds are you know someone who is either currently online dating, or is in a relationship with someone they met online.  Not only is it a great way to meet people, but i it can be a safe way to meet new people when you’re shy, anxious or experiencing social anxiety.

How? Mark Sainsbury and I talked about that on his Sunday morning show on Radio Live this week. (Click here for the audio of the interview)

So how big is it in New Zealand? Find Someone, New Zealand’s biggest dating website has about 80,000 active members at any one time.  That’s the population of Palmerston North, all looking to meet someone.  Meeting someone online is now more socially acceptable in part because we are now much more comfortable relating via technological mediums.  Thank Facebook for that.

Of course like any form of dating, online or offline, it’s important to be sensible and cautious.  But there are a lot less really nasty people on dating sites than the old stereotypes tend to suggest.  Research particularly into trolling behavior shows that whilst the internet and relating via technology may amplify some people’s natural tendencies, the behavior is consistent.  To put that another way if you’re a troll online, odds are you’re mean in your real life too.   And the good news is, on average people are honest online.  And if they do lie it’s most likely about small things like their weight, or age.

However for a lot of people one of the striking things about joining an online dating site for the first time is how strongly gender stereotypes can play out in this environment.  The clearest example of this is that when women join and post a new profile, they can get swamped with approaches, and for some this can understandably freak them out and cause them to pull back due to overwhelm or decision fatigue.  For men it is the opposite, most men find they join and nothing happens, and can lose interest albeit for a different reason.

So how can online dating help with social anxieties?  The most important feature of online dating is you can do it at your own pace, and approach engagement with the site in a structured manner, just like any “gradual exposure” treatment for a phobia.  And while many still consider online dating frivolous, I think it’s a serious business and I think most people find dating nerve racking.  It’s also true that being in a satisfying long term relationship is one of the strongest predictors of a long and happy life.

However finding someone can be easier if you are conscious about your expectations.  Many of the leading American sites market themselves on the idea that their sites can help you find your “soulmate”, but entering dating with that expectation is actually really unhelpful…

“One major problem with searching for one’s soulmate is that the belief that a partner must be a soulmate for a romantic relationship to succeed is associated with relationship dys- function. Indeed, people with strong beliefs in romantic destiny (sometimes called soulmate beliefs)—that a relationship between two people either is or is not “meant to be”—are especially likely to exit a romantic relationship when problems arise …

… On the other hand, people with strong beliefs in romantic growth (sometimes called work-it-out beliefs)—that happy relationships emerge from overcoming challenges—are especially likely to persist and succeed when confronting problems… …To be sure, a destiny/soulmate mindset predicts better outcomes when people believe that they have found their soulmate and when relationships are going well.

However, almost all romantic relationships eventually encounter significant stresses and strains (for a review, see Bradbury & Karney, 2010), which suggests that this mindset is likely to undermine relationship well-being over the long-run.”  (Click here for the rest of the article).

So there you go, if you want to find a mate be realistic, be honest, and get online.  Don’t look for a soulmate or the perfect romance but someone who is willing to work with you on creating a good relationship, despite the ups and downs.

And if you’re anxious or shy, take it slow.  But not too slow.  Romance can blossom online but can only grow in the real world.



Overcoming Social Anxiety

I’m pretty excited as a project that I’ve been working on for well over a year now is ready for the “public”.  I’ve put together a comprehensive online self-help treatment package for social anxiety and shyness, including video teaching sessions, a self help workbook, audio exercises and, of course, a blog.

Over time as the online community grows I’ll be adding ongoing webinar sessions and a private forum for members to support and help each other overcome their social anxiety and shyness.

I won’t be bombarding you with any more sales pitches on this blog, but if you want to know more, or know someone who might benefit, head over to and check it out!

Better dead than… give a speech?

That’s what most surveys say anyway, time and time again when asked about their fears people rank public speaking as number one, and death usually comes in around four or five.  But how can we make sense of such an extreme and consistent response?  Wallace and I talked about this on his Sunday Morning show on Radio Live this week.  (Click here for audio of the interview…)

But first, the numbers.  The research has been replicated quite a few times, but the original source seems to be a poll of 1000 Americans in 1973 and then again in 1993.  (Click here for a summary of the results.)  While the percentages change slightly, from 40{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} in 1973 to 45{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} in 1993, citing public speaking as their biggest fear, the ranking of different fears remains the same: Public speaking; Heights; Financial Problems; Deep Water, in that order, with Death coming in at fifth.

Why then are we so afraid of giving a speech?  Well when you dig a bit deeper you find that what people are actually afraid of is being embarrassed, making a fool of themselves or otherwise being uncovered as incompetent or flawed in some way.  Some people also end up simply being afraid of feeling anxiety, or others noticing that they are anxious.

The core problem here though is shame, and the power of the social emotions.  We are fundamentally herd animals.  Humans need other humans, and many of our emotions evolved to moderate and guide us in our social interactions and to maintain our connection with the group.  And for most of human history a human being on it’s own was a dead human being.  So shame, and the fear of exclusion or judgement by a group of people, can have an incredibly powerful effect over our behavior.  It’s actually being shunned or judged negatively by the group that feels like a fate worse than death.

So what to do if you have to give a speech?  Well knowing that this response  is normal can help.  And there are also some commonly prescribed tips for overcoming a fear of public speaking:

  • Make sure it’s important.  It’s much easier to do something hard if it matters.  Think about the long term benefits of giving the speech or presentation.  Why it matters to your career, or your relationships.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  If you’ve never given a speech, practice with a small group, or just a partner, flatmate or friend.  It’s pretty clear that when people keep doing something anxiety provoking the fear decreases over time.  The nervousness might remain but it becomes manageable.
  • Prepare, and know your topic.  This might seem obvious, but sometimes our avoidance can lead us to avoid any preparation until the last minute.  Be familiar enough with what you want to say that you don’t have to read it, but by all means refer to notes.
  • Don’t expect perfection.  Anxiety will make us want to get it perfect.  But the best speeches are natural, human and even a little bit flawed.  If you stumble or trip up, keep going.  Most people won’t notice, or judge you.  Remember nearly half of people hate giving speeches too!
  • Learn some simple breathing exercises.  It really helps to attend to the physical side of anxiety and the easiest way to do this is by monitoring and regulating your breathing.  If all else fails, take a deep breath.

And above all remember that your worth as a human being is not being measured by your speaking ability in that moment.  Like anything we all need practice to become good at things, and even the most seasoned public performers suffer from anxiety and nervousness before a performance.  They’ve simply learned to channel the energy to focus and prepare well.

“There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” ― Mark Twain


Don’t be negative

Off the Couch

The idea that we have “negative” and “positive” emotions is so entrenched in our language and culture that it feels hard to even think about it.  But the wisdom of mindfulness tells us quite clearly: there is no such thing as a negative emotion, it’s just what our mind does with pain and discomfort.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be talking about some of the so called negative emotions, and exploring some of the research and thinking about why we have them and what the use of these feelings are.

And this week: Embarrassment.  To hear this weeks chat with Tony Murrell on Radio Live about embarrassment click here.

No one likes feeling embarrassed and it can be a feeling that can lead us to avoid situations that cause us to feel that way.

However it’s also true that embarrassment is what we call a “pro-social emotion” it is one of the emotions that holds social interactions together.  It alerts us, and communicates to others, that we have made a social error and we are aware of  it.  We also tend to feel more embarrassed when we’re with people who matter, when we transgress with people we consider our “in-group” (see: “Are you in or are you out“) we feel it more acutely than with people we consider an “out-group.”

In it’s most extreme debilitating form embarrassment, and it’s more severe cousin shame, can lead to social phobia and avoidance of social situations all together.

However a number of studies show that people consistently judge someone, who has just made a mistake or social transgression likely to trigger embarrassment, much less harshly than the embarrassed person thinks.

The good news is if you’re someone prone to feeling embarrassed you’re likely kinder and more generous on average.  Studies  found that easily embarrassed people are more generous in sharing raffle tickets with strangers.  The research also shows that we find people who embarrass more easily more trustworthy and likeable.

So next time you’re feeling embaressed: breathe.  It likely means you care about the person you’re with, are kinder and more generous than average, the other person isn’t judging you as harshly as you think: in fact they probably trust you more.