Studies Link Social Anxiety To Empathetic Ability, High IQs, & Sentinel Intelligence – Thousand Thoughts
By Steven Bancarz| A few years ago, a series of studies came out in an attempt to sort of ‘debunk’ people who practice spirituality. The study found that people who have a spiritual understanding of life tend to be more susceptible to mental health problems, addictions, and anxiety disorders.
A passive aggressive news report from the Daily Mail titled “Spiritual people are more likely to be mentally ill (but at least they think life has more meaning)” took a jab at spiritual people as if to say “They’re crazy, but at least they think life is more important to them”.
A report by The Telegraph also covered the same story, claiming that spiritual people struggle to cope with things mentally. Now, could it be possible that the reason spiritually-minded people have more mental health issues and anxiety problems is not because they are looney, but because they are more connected to what is happening in the world?
What if they are more aware of the things that are wrong with society and are more connected to the suffering in the world? What if an anxious mind is a searching and connected mind? A very important study came out a few years ago linking social anxiety to increased empathetic abilities. People who report suffering from social anxiety have an increased ability to feel and interpret the emotions and mental states of people around them. As the study concluded:
Results support the hypothesis that high socially anxious individuals may demonstrate a unique social-cognitive abilities profile with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions.
In other words, people who have social anxiety are able to more tangibly feel the emotions of people around them. Many many people who consider themselves to be “conscious” or “spiritual” also report feeling social anxiety and experience things like depression and other mental disorders. But as it turns out, people who suffer from anxiety may also be more intelligent.
Studies link anxiety to intelligence
A recent research study out of Lakehead University found that people who reported to suffer from social anxiety also happened to test higher on psychological tests which were designed to measure verbal intelligence. People who reported having General Anxiety Disorder and depression actually scored higher on verbal-linguistic testing than people who did no suffer from anxiety.
Another study which was published in the European Journal of Psychology found that high-anxiety participants were quicker to detect threats of danger and responded more quickly to those threats than other participants. As the study concluded:
Social defense theory (Ein-Dor et al., 2010) proposes that in threatening situations, people who score high on attachment anxiety quickly detect the presence of threat and then alert other group members to the danger and the need for protection. Supporting this line of reasoning, we found that participants high in attachment anxiety were less willing to be delayed on their way to deliver a warning message.
Anxiety as a superpower
One explanation of this is that anxious individuals also tend to be more altruistic. In nature, animals that are able to detect and respond to threats the quickest are more likely to survive. In fact, some species of the animal kingdom rely on having an individual in their herd that is anxiety prone and can detect threats before the others can. Is it possible that anxiety is actually an evolutionary advantage? Could anxiety act as a biological superpower that helps us solve problems, avoid threats, and detect danger?
A study from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York demonstrated that participants who suffered from severe cases of anxiety tested higher on intelligence tests (IQ tests) that those who didn’t have as much anxiety. In other words, there was a direct correlation between degree of anxiety and degree of intelligence. This should come as no surprise, since anxious people are constantly analyzing, assessing, formulation ideas, reflecting, and processing information.
As Dr. Jeremy Coplan said about his study, “While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be.” So once again, we have evidence that people with “mental health disorders” are actually more intelligent on average.
And as mentioned previously, a recent study found that people with social anxiety exhibit elevated mentalizing and empathetic abilities. Essentially, they have a much higher psycho-social awareness.
What this means
Yes, people who are spiritually minded tend to suffer from anxiety and depression more. But this is because their eyes are open to a world that is in need of repair. They literally have an increased ability to feel the emotions of people around them.
Not to mention, the same people that are assumed to be crazy for having social anxiety and other mental disorders test higher on certain intelligence tests, IQ tests, and have an evolutionary advantage in being able to detect threats before other people.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t people who can accurately feel, interpret, and mentalize the thoughts and emotions of others and detect threats before other people called ‘intuitives’ and ‘psychics’? Could it be possible that having social anxiety and general anxiety disorder is NOT actually a disorder but is a product of having a stronger intuition, more accurate interpretations on people’s states, a sensitive energy field, and an increased ability to detect danger?
These scientific studies shine a whole new light on spirituality and social anxiety. Don’t be afraid to feel what you feel, and don’t let anyone call you crazy because of it. Perhaps what we are calling a disorder is actually a gift.
Author: Steven Bancarz
Social anxiety is the 3rd most common mental health issue in the U.S. In fact, over 19 million people suffer from mild to severe social anxiety today, and “normal” individuals tend to see the symptoms without understanding the nature of the illness and thus do not respond with empathy to sufferers. Common reactions to those who have social anxiety are that they are lazy, aloof, unfriendly, malingerers, hypochondriacs, and misfits.
If someone you care about or work with has social anxiety, you need to recognize the symptoms, understand his/her illness, and find ways to support that individual, rather than criticize and/or condemn. Here you will find 13 common behaviors of people who have social anxiety and how you need to respond in order to support them.
1. They want to be recognized for something other than just their social maladaptation.
A mental health issue does not define a person – it is simply one trait possessed right now. People with this affliction can be intelligent, can be productive, and can have a number of personality and professional traits that are quite positive. Recognizing and praising these positive traits will show that you see beyond this single “negative” and can see their value as a whole person.
2. They get tired easily.
And they may sleep more or may be too exhausted to engage in normal activity. Think about it. They spend all of their waking hours that are outside of their “safe” places (usually their homes) worrying about what situations they may find themselves in, what they will say if addressed in any manner, how they will cope with a meeting at work or a class discussion in school. Their brains are relentlessly churning, and that can be exhausting. Rather than criticizing them for their tiredness, how about putting yourself in that mental situation? Would you be exhausted? Of course you would be! Rather than criticize, suggest a short time out or nap.
3. They can “shut down” or “zone out.”
This is a defense mechanism, and we all have them, even though they may not present themselves in this manner. Some of us may become angry or irritable; some of us may be subject to “rants” of sorts. So why do we criticize socially anxious people for their defense mechanisms simply because they are different from our own? Part of developing empathy for socially anxious people is recognizing that they have their own responses to stress, just as we do.
4. They are horribly self-conscious.
While most people will accept a “bad hair day” or clothing that may not be wonderfully flattering, those with social anxiety put huge emphasis on physical appearance, convinced that they are being regularly judged by how they look. The best response? Give compliments on their physical appearance; tell them that their outfit really looks good on them; tell them that the color they are wearing is great; praise any physical feature that you can. This bolsters self-confidence and creates a feeling of acceptance.
5. They will have more health issues, as their immune systems are continually compromised.
A UCLA study showed that social anxiety increases inflammatory activity of those parts of the brain that trigger immune system functions. Continued activation of this system wears it down and makes the body more subject to illness and disease. Rather than criticize or accuse someone of hypochondria, understand and accept the fact that there is a real physical cause of more frequent illness.
6. They respond differently to stimuli that you consider normal and even pleasant.
Remember, research shows that people with social anxiety are on “high alert” all of the time. This means that noise, lots of conversation, and large groups of people can overload their sensory intake. They will retreat, shut down, or flee. A study conducted by Gottschalk, M.D. and Haer, Ph.D., published in General Psychiatry, demonstrates that sensory overload and social impairment are directly related, particularly in individuals who have generalized social anxiety issues. Thus, if you are “forcing” a socially anxious person to participate in such activities, you are presenting him/her with an almost “impossible” situation. Tone down the activities in which you are asking your loved one to participate, at least for now.
7. They have a great deal of difficulty dealing with change of any kind.
You may be excited about a career change or a transfer that will move you to a new city and new experiences. Your partner or spouse will not share that excitement if they suffer from social anxiety. Any change is a horrible threat to “safety,” and you must recognize it as such. In your excitement, you cannot dismiss the anxiety of your loved one. Find ways to acclimate your partner to the change gradually or share some information on how to organize your move to another place without any extra mess, to give small incremental experiences in the new environment, so that they are not overwhelmed.
8. They want positive responses to their anxiety attacks, not just nebulous comments, such as, “Are you going to be okay?”
They don’t feel “okay,” and they do not want someone continually asking them that question. Instead, you need to recognize the immediate condition and provide reassuring and positive comments, such as, “You’ve had these attacks before, and you have gotten through them. You will get through this one too. I am here to give you whatever help you need or to just leave you alone if that is what you want.”
9. They store previous traumatic events in a different part of their brains than other people.
We are all subject to traumatic events in our lifetimes – the death of a loved one; being the victim of bullying or abuse; catastrophes in our childhood or adolescence; violence in wartime. People who do not suffer social anxiety from such events store those memories in the left frontal portions of their brains; people who develop social anxiety store those memories in the back regions of their brains – those regions in which sensory perceptions are housed. Thus, the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of those experiences are recalled when similar sensory experiences are encountered (Dr. Ruth Lanius, University of Western Ontario, study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Jan., 2004). Understanding that the individual with social anxiety may be “re-living” prior traumatic experiences differently can go a long way towards understanding and developing sensitivity to their responses to current situations which stimulate those memories.
10. They need their “space.”
While you are trying to get the anxious person to get motivated to participate in events and social situations, that person just needs to step back and get some perspective, allowing a gradual build-up to the participation that you may want right now. It is far better that you respond with a comment like, “It’s okay, I can go by myself. You stay here, and I’ll see you later,” rather than, “I don’t understand what is wrong with you! All I’m asking is that you go to this event with me!” Try to stop focusing on your needs and focus on theirs.
11. They know that their anxieties are irrational.
You do not have to continually remind them of that fact. Instead of saying, “That’s just crazy!”, think of a response that validates what they are feelingright now. “I know what you are feeling; I know that you do not want to feel this way; how can I help?” This gives the socially anxious person trust in you and will allow them to voice their anxieties rather than keep them suppressed, which only causes additional stress.
12. They fear a social situation that has not presented itself
One of the cardinal symptoms of social anxiety is an irrational preoccupation with social situations that have not even occurred but may occur. If, for example, there is an invitation to a wedding and reception that is weeks away, the individual with social anxiety might obsess about the event. An inordinate amount of time may be spent thinking and re-thinking what clothing to wear, what hairstyle will be chosen, who else may be attending, where they might be seated at the reception, etc. You cannot change this thinking, but you can validate it and provide reassurances. Offering to help with selection of clothing and complimenting a particular hairstyle will assist in alleviating fears. Reassuring the individual that you will be “right next to them” throughout the event is important, and you must follow through with that promise.
13. They will want to retreat to their “safe place” as often as possible.
One of the things that social media has given to people with social anxiety is a method of communicating that is not face-to-face. Instead of criticizing the amount of time spent on Facebook or watching television, suggest an occasional walk or an evening out with dinner and a movie. These activities can reinforce the thinking that a social situation outside of the home can be “safe” too.
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