Study Links Social Anxiety to Empathy and Intelligence

Social anxiety is a daily struggle.

As human beings, we have a deep need for personal connection. Social anxiety strongly inhibits this. Its presence can cause even small tasks to become truly challenging.

Many of us turn to spirituality as a coping mechanism, but even here we often find disapproval. Certain studies have suggested that spiritual people are more prone to mental illness. Often, there is animosity between people who embrace and reject a spiritual lifestyle. This mindset, coupled with the stigma of mental illness, has led to some disheartening headlines. My least favorite of these comes from the Daily Mail. It reads: Spiritual people are more likely to be mentally ill (but at least they think life has more meaning).

I am a spiritual person who suffers from a diagnosed mental illness. In fact, I often lean on my spirituality to strengthen me when my social anxiety is taking over.

Understandably, I took great offense to the tone of this headline.

Sometimes society’s disapproval of people with mental difficulties can shake our confidence. It makes us wonder if there is something deeply and inherently wrong with us. However, upon examining this topic in more depth, this does not prove to be the case.

As it turns out, social anxiety is not a sign that something is wrong with our character. It may, however, be an indication that something is wonderfully right.

First of all, let’s recognize anxiety for what it is. Anxiety is an evolutionary strategy designed to keep us – and our loved ones – safe from danger. In fact, people with social anxiety have been proven to be more altruistically minded. We are more vigilant and quick to alert others to a threat. This may explain why women, and mothers especially, tend to experience anxiety in higher numbers. We are biologically hard-wired to protect ourselves and our families. We take this responsibility very seriously.

Social anxiety, then, is not an inability to make connections. Rather, it’s a tendency to treasure those connections more dearly.

This idea may also explain why socially anxious people tend to be more empathetic. Studies have shown that people who suffer from social anxiety are more sensitive and sympathetic to the feelings of others than those who do not. It’s not just our own troubles that keep us on high alert. When our loved ones hurt, we hurt as well. Our hearts are open, and they feel deeply. We may even experience vicarious trauma when faced with the pain of a dear friend.

It isn’t just our hearts that are powerful, either. A socially anxious mind can be a gift in disguise. Research studies from Lakehead University and SUNY Downstate Medical Center have shown a strong correlation between social anxiety and high intelligence. This is not surprising, since anxiety itself is an exercise in brain function. Anxious people are constantly analyzing, creating ideas, and processing information. If anything, we do these things at a quicker rate than a typical person might. Thus, when it comes to solving a real problem, our brains are warmed up and ready for action.

“Don’t worry if people think you’re crazy. You are crazy. You have that kind of intoxicating insanity that lets other people dream outside of the lines and become who they’re destined to be,” wrote Jennifer Elisabeth.

If you suffer from social anxiety, it is important to learn how to manage it. Therapy, medication, deep breathing, exercise, mindfulness, essential oils, and millions of other tools can be effective. Most people require a blend of several strategies. Do not, however, lose sight of who you are. Your social anxiety is a painful burden, but it comes along with some valuable gifts. Learn to tame your anxiety. Learn to harness your high capacity for empathy and intelligence. Soon, you will be an absolutely unstoppable force.

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