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The Link Between the Childhood Trauma and Social Anxiety

The experiences you endure throughout your life play a significant role in how you function day-to-day. Childhood, in particular, is a formative period in which you develop the tools you need to cope with life. Meanwhile, childhood trauma can disrupt your ability to build coping skills and effectively respond to different situations and interactions. Thus, addressing the relationship between childhood trauma and social anxiety can impact your ability to thrive in your daily life.

At The Guest House, we believe trauma can impair your ability to feel secure. Rather than gathering good experiences that make you feel safe, happy, and fulfilled, trauma warps your mental health into distress. Further, the distress of trauma can manifest as self-defeating thinking and behavior patterns like substance misuse, anxiety disorders, and depression. Yet, it can be difficult to recognize how your childhood traumas may impact your well-being, relationships, and life satisfaction.

Through the media, more people have become aware of the relationship between trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, portrayals of mental health disorders like PTSD in the media are often presented as something that solely happens in adulthood. For instance, trauma and PTSD are often associated with the military and, more recently, physical and sexual assault. Yet, PTSD and anxiety disorders like social anxiety can also stem from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Based on the stigmatization of mental health disorders, you might have heard phrases like “everyone gets anxious” or “anxiety isn’t a real disorder.” Further, such stigmatized beliefs about anxiety might make you question what exactly is social anxiety.

What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?

According to Cureus, social anxiety is a mental health disorder characterized by a fear of social situations and being judged. Sometimes people perceive shyness as social anxiety; however, they are not one and the same. Shyness, as the American Psychological Association (APA) notes, is feeling awkward, worried, or tense with unfamiliar people and places. Still, shyness and social anxiety share similarities like sweating, a pounding heart, and an upset stomach. ,

However, shyness and associated distress often dissipate when a person gets more comfortable with new surroundings or social groups. Whereas with social anxiety, such distress persists and impedes your ability to function. Additionally, the fear you feel about social settings and interactions is out of proportion with the actual seriousness of the threat. For example, the fear associated with everyday social situations like ordering food at a restaurant, eating in front of other people, and buying groceries can feel so intense with social anxiety that you avoid those situations entirely.

Moreover, as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes, in the United States alone, approximately 12.1% of adults will have social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Despite the impairment social anxiety causes, few people seek support because of misconceptions about its realness and seriousness. Thus, knowing the signs and symptoms of social anxiety can prevent you from leaving the roots of your distress unaddressed.

Signs and Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder

The NIMH notes that signs and symptoms of social anxiety are tied to concern over being humiliated, judged, and rejected. Whether direct social interaction is involved or not, you can still experience social anxiety symptoms. Listed below are some of the signs and symptoms associated with social anxiety disorder:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling dread days or weeks before a situation arises
  • Upset stomach
  • Avoidance
  • Feeling self-conscious

In addition, there are some common situations in which the symptoms of social anxiety are most often experienced. As Medline Plus states, social anxiety can be detrimental as everyday social situations impede your ability to participate in life.

Listed below are some of the common fears and situations associated with social anxiety:

  • Attending parties and other social events
  • Meeting new people
  • Speaking in public
  • Talking to cashiers and waiters
  • Eating and or drinking in public
  • Using public restrooms
  • Making phone calls
  • Dating
  • Applying to jobs and attending job interviews
  • Answering and asking questions in a class

Furthermore, the signs, symptoms, and accompanying situational fears that come with social anxiety often manifest in childhood. However, early signs of social anxiety are often mistaken for extreme shyness. Knowing that social anxiety typically starts developing in childhood opens the door to the how and why of the disorder. What factors cause the development of social anxiety disorder?

There are a variety of risk factors that can contribute to the development of different mental health disorders. Truth be told, trauma is a major risk factor for many mental health disorders, including PTSD and depression. In a similar way, trauma and social anxiety share an intersecting relationship. Therefore, understanding the relationship between trauma and social anxiety can help you dismantle the roots of your self-defeating behaviors.

The Relationship Between Early Trauma and Social Anxiety

As the South African Journal of Psychiatry states, childhood trauma is associated with an increased risk of mental health disorders later in life. Trauma can be particularly detrimental to children because they are still learning how to effectively cope with life stressors. While many children can develop resiliency to overcome ACEs, much of that resilience stems from access to healthy relationships. Resiliency, especially for children, is fostered by stable and supportive relationships with parents, caregivers, or other adults.

When a child has access to healthy, supportive relationships, there is space to build self-efficacy, adaptive skills, and self-regulation. However, the capacity for resiliency is impeded when the trauma children are exposed to is perpetrated by the parents or caregivers who are supposed to nurture and protect them. As noted in the Schizophrenia Bulletin, poor emotional and social development in childhood is influenced by family relationships. Without adequate support, early childhood trauma can have significant social and emotional consequences that manifest in childhood and worsen in adulthood.

Moreover, according to the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, parental emotional abuse and neglect can be important factors in the development of social anxiety disorder. Some examples of emotional abuse and neglect include:

  • Constant insults and criticism
  • Humiliation
  • Threatening
  • Rejection
  • Withholding love, support, and guidance
  • Gaslighting
  • Denying needs
    • Housing
    • Clothing
    • Food
    • Hygiene
    • Medical care
  • Exposure to violence and abuse
  • Abandonment

Compared to other types of trauma like physical neglect, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, there has been a higher correlation between emotional abuse and neglect and social anxiety. Moreover, emotional abuse and neglect highlight key features of social anxiety disorder, like fear of shame and rejection. Thus, the disruption of social and emotional development from parental emotional abuse impairs important social functioning like interpersonal attachments, emotional regulation, and close relationships. As a result, understanding the relationship between trauma and social anxiety can give you insight into how trauma has impeded your relationships.

Impact of Childhood Trauma and Social Anxiety on Relationships

Difficulties in socialization and relationships from trauma and social anxiety often present in childhood. However, the distress trauma and social anxiety have on your well-being in childhood often go unaddressed. As Medline Plus notes, some common signs of emotional abuse and neglect in childhood include:

  • Academic difficulties
  • Frequent absences from school
  • Emotional distress
    • Low self-esteem
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
  • Behavioral issues
    • Acting out
    • Aggression
    • Trying to please everyone
  • Sleep issues
  • Eating disorders
  • Somatic physical pains

Moreover, some additional signs of trauma and social anxiety in childhood include:

  • Fear of school and places with people
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability and or anger

When the signs and symptoms of trauma and social anxiety go unaddressed in childhood, it increases the risk for social and emotional difficulties in adulthood. In an article titled “The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Children’s Wellbeing and Adult Behavior” by Cheyenne Downey and Aoife Crummy, the authors point out that parental trauma, in particular, is devastating to a child’s core belief system about their sense of safety, support, and their value. The insecurity that festers from trauma presents itself in adulthood often as:

  • Anxiety
    • Chronic exposure to severe stressors like trauma increases stress response to events
    • Childhood trauma distorts the brain and body’s understanding of dangerous situations
      • The stress response becomes overactivated and the body and mind remain alert in preparation for harm through the fight-or-flight response system
      • A constant state of readiness for emotional abuse and neglect perpetuates social anxiety in adulthood as your brain and body assume every situation and social interaction is dangerous
  • Self-isolation
    • The impact of trauma and social anxiety increases the risk for self-isolation in an effort to avoid accompanying distress
      • It may feel easier to self-isolate to avoid having to feel excessive worry and fear from social interactions
  • Low self-esteem
    • Abuse from a primary caregiver can be destructive to your self-esteem in childhood and adulthood
      • The trauma of abuse and insecure relationship attachments increase feelings of fear and vulnerability
      • Traumatic experiences in your interpersonal relationships in childhood impair your self-knowledge as those experiences decrease self-worth, self-identity, and self-belief
      • If you are constantly told you are the problem or a burden, you start to take it as a fact
  • Unhealthy coping strategies
    • Coping is the behaviors and thoughts you utilize to deal with life stressors and challenges
      • Some coping strategies are active and adaptive as they allow you to respond to your distress in healthy ways
        • Problem-solving
        • Mindfulness
        • Seeking support from your community
      • Whereas other coping strategies are passive and maladaptive as they encourage you to respond to your distress in unhealthy ways
        • Substance use disorder (SUD)
          • As a form of self-medicating, you may misuse substances as a distraction from your childhood trauma
            • In particular, you may attempt to suppress the distressing symptoms of social anxiety disorder with substances, such as consuming alcohol before social interactions or events with people
        • Self-harm
        • Overeating

The combination of trauma and social anxiety impedes your ability to function in your daily life and maintain healthy relationships. Further, the impact of trauma and social anxiety disorder is clear in difficulties seeking, forming, and maintaining close interpersonal relationships. As seen in the Annals of General Psychiatry, different types of childhood trauma can have a profound impact on interpersonal distress in adulthood. Mental health difficulties in adulthood like depressive symptoms, state-trait anxiety, and anxiety sensitivity all have high correlations with childhood trauma.

In addition, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and sexual abuse have strong relationships with interpersonal difficulties in adulthood. Some of the ways childhood trauma and social anxiety work in conjunction to impair interpersonal relationships include:

  • Disrupting the ability to form attachments to others
  • Difficulties forming reflective awareness of the self and others
  • Seeking control over your relationships
    • An attempt to avoid the emotional distress of worry and fear over the things you cannot control or know
  • Presenting needy interpersonal patterns in your relationships
    • An expression of the toll trauma and social anxiety has taken on your self-esteem and self-worth
    • You engage in needy behaviors because your core belief in your value and lovability as a person has been fractured
  • Childhood trauma and social anxiety can also result in nonassertive, overly accommodating, and self-sacrificing behavior patterns in relationships
  • Internal ambivalence
    • The challenges of early trauma and social anxiety leave you craving close relationships, yet fearful of being hurt

Furthermore, the impact of trauma and social anxiety on interpersonal distress can make it difficult to participate in your daily life. You may find it challenging to interact with people in important areas of your life, such as:

  • Difficulties interacting with peers in work and school settings
  • Struggling to advocate for yourself in situations with clear power dynamics
    • Healthcare professionals
    • Teachers and professors
  • Distress and or inability to interact with service workers
  • Challenges with managing responsibilities and obligations when they require in-person or remote social interaction
    • Making important medical, financial, and social calls
    • Paying bills
  • Difficulties voicing your thoughts and feelings with family and friends

The distress of trauma and social anxiety impairs your interpersonal relationships and your ability to complete tasks in your daily life. Trauma and social anxiety can have a significant impact on your close intimate relationships as well. According to an article from Frontiers in Psychology, childhood emotional maltreatment encourages negative thinking and behavior patterns that impede the quality of romantic relationships in adulthood. The dysfunctional romantic relationships you experience in adulthood from trauma and social anxiety often stem from feeling less safe in your relationships.

Feeling unsafe in your relationships becomes clear when your early experiences are based on you being constantly criticized, blamed, rejected, and uncared for by the adults who were meant to protect you. The difficulties of the traumas of your childhood can feel even more devastating in romantic relationships. Romantic relationships often play a powerful role in your well-being as they act as a source of belonging, support, guidance, and love to navigate the world together. Some of the ways trauma and social anxiety can impair your romantic relationships include attachment anxiety and avoidance, which can lead to:

  • Low trust
  • More conflicts
  • Decreased satisfaction
  • Hostility
  • Depression

To summarize, childhood trauma can lead to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that impede your ability to lead a fulfilling life. Yet, by addressing the relationship between trauma and social anxiety, you can better understand the impacts they collectively share on your life.

Fostering Tools for Healing Trauma and Social Anxiety at The Guest House

At The Guest House, we know self-defeating or self-destructive choices are often rooted in trauma. Therefore, understanding the impact trauma and social anxiety have had on you and your life can help you dismantle those harmful patterns. With deeper self-understanding comes the capacity to build resilience and healing for your long-term well-being. However, the distress of early trauma often goes unaddressed when less care is placed on how your life experiences impact you throughout your life.

As a result, at The Guest House, we are committed to providing a holistic approach to care to treat the whole person in mind, body, and spirit. With holistic care and a wide range of therapeutic modalities like individual therapy, meditation and yoga, and equine therapy, you can find the support you need. There is no one right way to go about recovery. For this reason, we believe long-term recovery starts with building a treatment plan that meets you where you are on your journey to long-term healing.

The relationship between trauma and social anxiety disorder can impede your well-being in adulthood. Moreover, types of childhood trauma like emotional abuse and neglect can contribute to social anxiety that impairs your ability to function in your daily life and build healthy close relationships. The distress from trauma and social anxiety can impair your self-esteem and increase avoidance behaviors in social situations and relationships. However, with holistic care, you can address the roots of your self-defeating behaviors. At The Guest House, we are committed to providing whole-person care to help you build a path to healing that supports adaptive coping in your daily life and fosters meaningful close relationships. Call us at (855) 483-7800 to learn more today.