February Lab of the Month: Facing social anxiety with UBC’s Interpersonal Lab

Feeling socially anxious isn’t uncommon–despite the notion that people are social animals. It’s a natural feeling and one based out of fear. Fear of rejection, fear of scrutiny, and fear of negative evaluation are just a few of the body’s responses that occur in social situations. In some cases, this anxiety is so severe it can result in an inability to form relationships.

Dr. Lynn Alden, clinical psychologist and principal investigator of the Interpersonal Lab at UBC, has published numerous papers on topics related to anxiety disorders, in particular Social Anxiety Disorder. Because relationships are critical to our overall well-being, Alden and her lab members want to understand the factors that create social anxiety and identify strategies to help socially anxious people have positive relationships.

The Interpersonal Lab’s research focuses on the role of cognitive and interpersonal processes in the anxiety disorders with a particular focus on Social Anxiety Disorders (SAD) and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

We sit down with Dr. Alden to learn more about SAD, the research and treatment studies underway in the lab, and the lab’s collaboration with an international research group looking at PTSD in first responders and emergency medical personnel.

What is the lab’s main research focus?
Our lab studies anxiety disorders with special emphasis on social anxiety disorder (SAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our research is characterized by a dialogue between controlled laboratory studies and clinical work that aims to augment treatments for these conditions. We find research on positive affect and social approach behavior are particularly relevant for our research and are extending concepts and methods from those findings into the domain of anxiety.

What led you to develop an interest to study stress, anxiety, and anxiety disorders (SAD) and PTSD?
SAD is a prevalent condition that is marked by excessive fear in social situations. One of the more devastating effects of SAD is to impair the person’s ability to developing satisfying relationships. Because the presence of relationships is critical to physical and emotional well-being, we want to understand the factors that create social anxiety and to identify strategies to enhance positive relational functioning in socially anxious individuals. From a scientific perspective, SAD presents a number of intriguing research issues. For example, individuals with SAD generally are likeable, sensitive individuals, yet they harbor a sense that they are in some way inadequate and that others will have negative reactions to them. As a result, they either avoid social situations or they engage in subtle avoidance (safety behaviors) to try to prevent the disapproval they expect from others. Our previous research demonstrated an interesting paradox- that the strategies socially anxious people use to prevent feared social outcomes actually result in the negative outcomes they fear and leave them with a painful sense of emotional isolation.

A second research interest in our lab is PTSD, a condition that develops as a result of an individual experiencing an extremely frightening event. Our primary focus is PTSD in first responders and emergency medical personnel, e.g., police officers, paramedics, firefighters, and hospital personnel. Individuals who work in these professions are the “good guys”- they devote their efforts and energy to help the rest of us when we face life emergencies. These professionals are essential to a well- functioning, compassionate society.  Understanding and helping them to overcome the stress conditions they develop in response to horrific work events is a way for us to contribute to society as well as to the scientific understanding of the effects of trauma on human beings. We are currently part of an international collaborative research group funded by WorkSafeBC to help develop guidelines for prevention and treatment of PTSD in these important individuals.

What kinds of questions do you try to answer in your research?

Examples of our research on SAD:

  •  Lynn Alden is interested in safety behaviors, the subtle overt and covert self-protective strategies that individuals with anxiety disorders use to try to prevent their feared outcomes. We found that reliance on safety behaviors is associated with a sense of inauthenticity in individuals with SAD, that is, they recognize they are not behaving in accordance with their true selves. Therefore, even if others are friendly, they continue to doubt their self-worth. Another finding is that reducing safety behaviors increases self-authenticity, which in turn, mediates increased social enjoyment not only for individuals with SAD but also for those with whom they interact.
  • Karen Auyeung is studying accurate empathy for others’ emotions, i.e., how accurate people are at recognizing the negative emotions displayed by others. Her work was inspired by her earlier involvement in the Roots of Empathy school program. She recently completed four studies that address how anxiety influences emotion judgments for socially painful events. Her work has elucidated the cognitive and emotional processes that mediate accurate empathy and identified effective and ineffective responding to others’ social pain.
  • Klint Fung is examining effects of aversive social stimuli on the development of social fears. His Masters’ thesis examined the effects of social ostracism on anxiety in subsequent social tasks. Among his discoveries was that an over-the-counter pain killer reduced ostracism-related social pain and fear learning. His doctoral research is continuing to explore how exposure to negative social stimuli creates and maintains social anxiety. Another of his research interests is the relationship between social anxiety and loneliness.
  • Bri Glazier’s research focuses on memory processes, an interest that developed in her undergraduate RA work on memory in individuals with psychotic disorders. She is currently examining how anxiety affects memory for social events and the various factors that influence these memories.
  • Carly Parsons’ research interests center on the motivations for, and consequences of, social networking site (SNS) use in terms of our emotional and social well-being, particularly for young adults with pre-existing anxiety. Her Master’s thesis examined social rank judgments of unknown peers on Facebook and the potential influence of these judgments. Carly’s research is inspired by her own observations about the strong pull–and accompanying stressors–of smartphone and SNS use among adolescents and young adults, and further informed and corroborated by ongoing developments in this nascent research field.

If someone is experiencing social anxiety, what can they do to get help or treatment?
Unfortunately there is a paucity of treatment resources for SAD in Vancouver and throughout British Columbia. There are a number of psychological clinics that provide cognitive-behavior therapy for SAD, an approach which has been shown to be effective in multiple scientific studies and is the gold standard for treatment. These clinics offer excellent therapy but typically require private payment. A good online resource is Anxiety BC, a website that provides information about overcoming anxiety disorders and has links to other resources.

Are there any new discoveries in your field that you are particularly excited about?
I’m excited about all of our recent findings on how social anxiety develops and how it influences social approach behavior, i.e., behaviours shown to facilitate relationship development such as authenticity, empathy, and so on.

Can you describe the personality of the lab?
As you might expect from a group of researchers interested in social functioning, lab members are interpersonally warm, supportive individuals who encourage each other’s efforts and share their ideas, research methods, and data with each other.      

Are you socially anxious? Is social anxiety your main concern?

The Interpersonal Lab is looking for adults with social anxiety to participate in a study on UBC campus. More