New research targets sufferers of social anxiety disorder

A thorough understanding of personality traits could lead to targeted therapies.

New research targets sufferers of social anxiety disorder
Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash
  • Sufferers of social anxiety have markedly different personality traits than others.
  • By understanding these traits, researchers at Uppsala believe targeted therapies could evolve.
  • Social anxiety affects 15 million American adults every year.

In his essay, "The problem of anxiety," Sigmund Freud wrote that anxiety is the "fundamental phenomenon and the central problem of neurosis." You will not find a final word on the subject in Freud's writing, however. His theories on anxiety evolved throughout his life. By the end of his illustrious and contentious career, he admitted that he would likely never completely define what anxiety entails.

That doesn't mean his contributions were for naught. No one contributed as much to our understanding of the unconscious drives that fuel our reality. Freud's ideas about sexuality are regularly debated—even he moved away from his earlier work—yet he knew what others, such as Kierkegaard and Rank, recognized: Anxiety is our natural state. To be conscious is to have anxiety. It's the cost of being able to foresee the future. How you deal with that anxiety in large part defines your personality.

Freud terms objective anxiety "anxious readiness." This function arms an individual so that they will not be surprised by sudden threats. Being overly prepared, however, leads to problems: your actions are paralyzed. This is the "freeze" function of our nervous system. This is also the basis of social anxiety: an inability to be in public, or, when you must go out, the sheer terror of being among others.

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New research from Uppsala University, published in the journal PLOS ONE, investigates the ramifications of social anxiety. The conclusion that lead author Tomas Furmark comes to: sufferers of social anxiety disorders exhibit different personality traits than others.

Personality is defined by the Big Five traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of these traits operate along a spectrum. Are you curious or cautious? Are you compassionate toward your partner or are you emotionally detached? Do you step into the center of a party or are you the perpetual wallflower that leaves out the back door?

Context matters. You might be extroverted in an environment in which you're comfortable, exuding a ton of confidence. Walk next door and suddenly you're reserved and nervous. Anxiety is tethered to environment and your personality isn't fixed. You can change your place on any of the spectrums, which is the goal of therapy.

For sufferers of social anxiety—15 million American adults every year—lateral movement is difficult. Just as depressed people often cannot envision the future, the socially anxious find it challenging to be in public. There's context here as well. The supermarket might be easy but that cocktail party is never going to happen. At the extreme end, social anxiety means only leaving your home for specific, targeted purposes, and even those trips make you anxious.

Photo by Ahmed Nishaath on Unsplash

The team at Uppsala asked 265 volunteers with social anxiety to fill out comprehensive personality surveys. They identified three groups based on cluster analysis: prototypical social anxiety disorder (33 percent), whose members appear highly anxious and introverted; introvert-conscientious social anxiety disorder (29 percent), whose members are introverted but also have high levels of conscientiousness; and unstable-open social anxiety disorder (38 percent), with individuals scoring high on openness.

While the causes of each disorder differ, Fumark and his team identified specific personality traits that appear to be universal: high neuroticism and introversion, emotional instability, and a tendency to turn inward.

The researchers believe that defining these traits helps to expand our understanding of social anxiety disorders, which helps therapists target each subtype. As the team concludes,

"SAD personality subtypes may have different etiologies and it seems plausible that individuals exhibiting vastly different personality characteristics require different treatment strategies."

For example, cognitive behavioral therapy could be utilized with social approach focus to treat SAD sufferers with depression or low energy. Targeted approaches might work better for patients with certain types of traits as compared to others with different traits. As always, the team recommends further research, but this seems to be an important step in understanding the many shades of social anxiety.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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