Brain Facts

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If you have social anxiety, change is possible

If you have clinical social anxiety, it may be due to differences in your brain that cause you to perceive the world as more threatening. If you believe (as many people do) that any behavior rooted in the brain is permanent, then it’s easy to look at this research and feel discouraged. It would imply that you’re doomed to a life of overreacting to social situations. Fortunately, we know this isn’t true because the brain can be rewired.

The brain is remarkably plastic, which means it can be changed and shaped by learning and experience. Even in old age, your brain is still forming new connections and writing over old ones. Research shows that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the leading treatment for social anxiety, actually changes the brain and rewires connections that contribute to anxiety. A 2016 study showed that socially anxious participants’ amygdalae shrunk and decreased in activity after only nine weeks of treatment with CBT. The researchers also found a correlation between the amount a participant’s amygdala shrunk and the amount their anticipatory anxiety about giving a speech had dropped.

Another way CBT rewires the brain is it creates new, faster and stronger connections between parts of the brain that are key to an emotional regulation process called cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is when you actively change your emotional reaction to a situation by reinterpreting its meaning. For example, if you’re out to dinner with a friend and she isn’t being very talkative, you might automatically interpret this as her thinking you’re boring, leading you to feel anxious. But if you pause to consider that your friend might be quiet because she’s tired from a long day at work, you’d likely feel less bad about yourself. A 2013 study found that people with social anxiety have a harder time doing this kind of reframing than most people due to delayed connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. However, after treatment with CBT, the socially anxious participants not only showed increased connections between these regions, they also showed faster and stronger activation between them. Through training and practice, the participants had actually rewired their own brains to create the connections needed for reappraisal. By the time they finished CBT, participants were “spontaneously” reappraising events on their own.

So the good news is, if you have social anxiety, change is possible. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps you retrain and rewire your brain so you can feel more in control in situations that make you anxious. If social anxiety is keeping you from living the life you want, you might want to try CBT through a therapist, a counselor, or an online program like Joyable.

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Donah Shine

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