Perfectionism: Why so Many People With Social Anxiety Fail At Getting Better

Have you ever come up with big plans for changing your behavior in the new year just to find yourself not following through within the first couple of weeks?

Something important came up so you had to interrupt your gym routine or your co-workers brought chocolate to the office and you simply could not resist, so all hopes for a healthier year were lost in an instant?

Oftentimes, people stop doing the right things because of counterproductive perfectionism.

Counterproductive Perfectionism

When it comes to behavior change, many people make this type of experience.

Commonly, there are two ways of thinking that play a crucial role for this pattern: unrealistically high expectations towards the self and the erroneous idea that one setback means it is over.

This is an example of counterproductive perfectionism, one of the main features of people with social anxiety disorder.

But what if you were to make changes to your diet and your activity level, with a little setback here and there, but on a consistent basis?

Instead of rushing to the gym for 14 days straight in January and not at all for the rest of the year, you might go once a week but do so for the next decade.

Combine that with some moderate but persistent changes to your diet, and your physician won’t even notice you aged at your next medical checkup.

The Secret Potential of Persistence

The same accounts for conquering your social anxiety.

Fear, shame, & sadness are strong emotions which can have a paralyzing effect on those who experience them continuously.

Fear, shame, & sadness are strong emotions which can have a paralyzing effect on those who experience them continuously.

But even so, most people with SAD are motivated to do something about their problem. While their perfectionism often plays a crucial role in the development of their social anxiety, it is frequently involved in maintaining it as well.

Unrealistic standards often get in the way when it comes to overcoming social anxiety. Just like for the new year’s resolutions above, people stop trying to get better due to exaggerated expectations towards the self and believing that not following through perfectly means they have failed.

But what if, much like in the example above, socially anxious people were to make some small but persistent changes to their behavior?

What if they were to allow themselves to return to old habits once in a while without punishing themselves with self-criticism?

What if they implemented small, achievable changes in a way that allowed them to engage in habits that acted as buffers against social anxiety on a consistent basis?

Afraid of Facing your Fears? Start by Turning the Easy Things Into Habits

One of the major challenges for people with SAD is becoming proactive when it comes to reducing their anxiety.

Psychotherapy typically involves exposure to the feared social scenarios, which often intimidates affected individuals.

If they do try to seek the feared situations, their counterproductive perfectionism often impedes the development of new habits. This leaves many people with the idea that getting better is out of their reach and they stop trying.

The gap between their current situation (in which exposure exercises are too scary in order to be carried out regularly) and the deliberate seeking of feared social scenarios is still too big.

Likewise, it represents one of the reasons why so many people stop trying to improve.

The solution to this problem, it seems, lies in reducing this gap by giving socially anxious people things they can try without further preparation.

Therefore, for individuals who still shy away from facing their fears directly, a good start might be to introduce small but consistent behavior changes to their lives.

Over time, the effects of these changes can add up and lower the threshold for exposure exercises.

Preliminary Studies: Small Changes with Significant Impact

Some research groups have investigated exactly that. Merom and colleagues (2008), for instance, found significant reductions in social anxiety symptoms for people that started a home-based walking regimen.

The participants were undergoing a cognitive behavior group treatment and were asked to additionally walk on 5 days a week, for a total of 150 minutes.

In a study, people with social anxiety who engaged in physical exercise showed greater symptom reductions than those who did not.

The treatment lasted 10 weeks and led to considerably stronger reductions in anxiety, depression and stress, compared to the control group (which received the CBT group treatment with additional educational sessions instead of the walking regimen).

Participants with major increases in physical activity also displayed the greatest reductions in these scores.

Another research group found significant improvements in social anxiety measures for people who engaged in prolonged aerobic exercise and mindfulness-based stress reduction practice (Jazaieri, Goldin, Werner, Ziv, & Gross, 2012).

Similar effects have been found for the consumption of fruit as compared to having sweet, processed foods such as chocolate (Parker, Parker, & Brotchie, 2006; Macht & Mueller, 2007).

Nutritional choices appear to have a huge impact on our mental health.

In one study, participants eating fruit were more likely to experience lower levels of anxiety, depression and emotional discomfort than those eating chocolate or crisps. Nutritional choices appear to have a huge impact on our mental life (Khan & Khan, 2016).

As becomes clear, small but persistent changes to your behavior can lead to significant improvements regarding our anxiety and general well-being.

This means that getting better, at least a bit, is in everybody’s reach. And it means you can get started today. And always remember: you do not need to do this perfectly.

Jazaieri, H., Goldin, P. R., Werner, K., Ziv, M., & Gross, J. J. (2012). A Randomized Trial of MBSR Versus Aerobic Exercise for Social Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.21863

Khan, S., & Khan, R.A. (2016). Healthy Diet a Tool to Reduce Anxiety and Depression. Journal of depression & anxiety, 5, 1-3.

Macht M, Mueller J. Immediate effects of chocolate on experimentally induced mood states. Appetite. 2007 Nov;49(3):667-74. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2007.05.004. Epub 2007 May 23. PMID: 17597253.

Merom, D., Phongsavan, P., Wagner, R., Chey, T., Marnane, C., Steel, Z., … Bauman, A. (2008). Promoting walking as an adjunct intervention to group cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders-A pilot group randomized trial. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.09.010

Parker G, Parker I, Brotchie H. Mood state effects of chocolate. J Affect Disord. 2006 Jun;92(2-3):149-59. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2006.02.007. Epub 2006 Mar 20. PMID: 16546266.

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