from the


from the Top of the Mind


from the
Top of the Mind

“Dr. Crawford’s presentation was the highlight of the conference and a much needed reminder for all of us (especially nurses) to keep it all balanced. Bill’s psychology background surely protruded through his messages and I know it was well-received by all!”

Nancy Perovic, RN, BSN
University Of Chicago Hospitals, Chicago, IL

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The Neuroscience of Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is like any fear… it is a learned perspective designed to keep us safe from failure and/or embarrassment by making us so anxious that we choose avoidance over engagement. Unfortunately, the result is often increased anxiety and isolation, which only make the experience worse.

The first thing we need to understand about social anxiety is that it is learned. Babies do not lay in their crib worried that people will judge them or that they will be embarrassed based upon what they do or say. In fact, being “social,” which is simply being around other people, was at one time what we all wanted and needed. Unfortunately, when we are criticized in school or at home, our anxiety around saying the wrong thing or being judged by those we are with becomes a hard-wired fear that can have major negative effects in our life.

For those of you who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” perspective, you know that this has to do with how the brain processes information.

For example, the middle brain (or limbic system) is responsible for keeping us safe as a specie, and tends to encode any negative experience as something to avoid in the future. Therefore, when we are criticized for saying the wrong thing as a child or embarrassed at school, the limbic system remembers this negative experience, and attempts to use fear or anxiety as a way of keeping this from happening again.

Unfortunately, this anxiety around social situations tends to trap us in the reactive brain where we do indeed say or do things that can appear awkward, which only makes this fear worse.

So, what can we do? We need to understand that this is a fear-based belief generated by the limbic system, or middle brain that isn’t serving us. It hasn’t been chosen on purpose, it’s not how we want to be defined, and we wouldn’t teach or recommend it to someone we love. This has the upper 80% of the brain (what I call the Top of the Mind) evaluating an old belief or perspective that social situations are dangerous and to be avoided to determine whether we want to trust it or change it.

If we want to change it, then the next step is to determine what we want to change it to, or how do we want to think differently about engaging others in public.

This is about shifting from trying to stop the problem (being afraid of social situations) to starting the solution, which means that we need to be clear about what a more purposeful, effective belief/perspective around engaging others would be.

This will be easier if we can remember a time when we were engaging someone we trust with ease. In this case, our limbic system, or middle brain, was not interpreting the encounter as negative, and, thus, wasn’t triggering the chemicals of anxiety (adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol). Holding this image of engaging others with confidence actually reinforces a neural pathway in the brain (from our limbic system up to our neocortex), and as we continue to hold this image in our mind, this pathway is strengthened.

Next, we just add one or two more people to the image. Have we engaged two or three friends without anxiety? Chances are that the answer is yes! What about four or five? What if we add one person we don’t know to that mix…do we still feel okay? As you keep adding people to your imaginary experience, there will come a point where your limbic system kicks in and says, “Okay! That’s too many people!” When this happens, you just go back to the last number that was not perceived as dangerous, and run that image over and over in your mind until your limbic system gets bored and gives up its fear. You then add one more person to your imaginary experience, and chances are good that imagining engaging one more won’t make that much of a difference.

The key is to remember several things. One, that there was a time in our past when we engaged others without fear or anxiety. Two, that our fear of social situations is just an old, protective part of the brain trying to keep us safe by keeping us anxious. And three, that this fear exists as a series of neural pathways in our brain that we can change as we practice thinking, feeling, and being the way we want to be, versus trying to avoid what we don’t want.

As the quote says, “When our purpose becomes avoidance, our life becomes a void.” Given that we don’t want to create a life of avoidance where we trust fear and anxiety to keep us safe in situations that aren’t truly dangerous, we need to shift from a focus on the problem to a focus on the solution, and begin to retrain our brain. The good news is that the brain is always rewiring itself (it’s called neuroplasticity). As we take charge of this rewiring process, we can have a tremendous impact on our experience of life, regardless of how many people are in the room.

~ All the best, Dr. Bill

Dr. Crawford's Info Packet

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