WELLNESS
11/14/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2014

Social Anxiety Can Make You Doubt How Much Your Friends Love You

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Social anxiety disorder can make it incredibly difficult for people to interact with others and make friends. And according to a new study, people with the disorder also tend to have extremely warped perceptions of the friendships they do have.

While the term "social anxiety" is often used casually to indicate shyness, introversion or awkwardness, the anxiety disorder -- which is characterized by excessive and irrational fear of social situations -- is very real. Social phobia is a recognized psychiatric condition affecting over 19 million Americans. Its symptoms can range in severity, and include a fear of meeting new people, fear of judgment and rejection, declining social invitations, and refraining from attending events and work functions for fear of rejection.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that social anxiety often causes people who suffer from the disorder to have distorted perceptions of their relationships. In reality, their friendships may be much stronger than they think.

"People who are impaired by high social anxiety typically think they are coming across much worse than they really are," study co-author Thomas Rodebaugh, a psychology professor at Washington University, said in a statement. "This new study suggests that the same is true in their friendships."

Rodebaugh tested 122 adults, some with social anxiety disorder and some who had not been diagnosed with the disorder. Each participant chose a non-romantic friend to participate with them who had agreed to take part in the study. He found that individuals with social anxiety disorder reported that their friendships were significantly worse than the participants who did not have social anxiety disorder. The friends of those who had social anxiety disorder, however, didn't see it this way.

“Their friends seem to say something more like: ‘It’s different, but not worse,'" Rodebaugh said in the statement. "[They] did seem to be aware that their friends were having trouble, and additionally saw the person with social anxiety disorder as less dominant in the friendship."

Relationship misperceptions were the strongest among younger members of the study, and among participants who had chosen newer friends to participate.

Social anxiety is usually treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or pharmaceutical interventions like antidepressants, benzodiazepines or beta blockers. A recent meta-analysis from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that CBT tends to be more effective than other options in treating the disorder. The new findings could help devise or modify current treatments for social anxiety to aid people in developing more correct perceptions of their relationships.

“Current treatments focus, in part, on helping people with social anxiety disorder see that they come across better than they expect they will,” Rodebaugh said. “Our study suggests that’s true for specific friendships as well.”

The findings were published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

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