Self-Compassion and Social Anxiety Disorder

Article summary provided by Hillary Greene

THE MAIN POINT:

People with social anxiety disorder often experience strong negative self-views and tend to be very self-critical. Conversely, the idea of self-compassion refers to having a caring and accepting self-view, which research has shown to be associated with positive well-being in healthy populations. This study examined self-compassion among persons with social anxiety disorder compared to healthy persons and found significant differences between these two groups. For individuals suffering with social anxiety disorder, this study highlights the potential importance of adopting a positive and nurturing view of oneself, especially in regards to social encounters. See details below, which describe this recent study on self-compassion and social anxiety disorder (Werner et al., 2012).

THE DETAILS:

What is self-compassion?

The idea of self-compassion refers generally to having a caring and accepting self-view. Some researchers describe self-compassion as having multiple components, which are described below (Neff, 2003). Self-compassion involves being kind and accepting of yourself when feeling distress or a sense of failure, instead of being critical and negative toward yourself. This idea also involves viewing yourself within a broad human context and as having similar experiences as other people. Lastly, self-compassion involves an element of viewing yourself in the present moment when feeling pain or distress, rather than allowing those feelings to dominate your self-view (Neff, 2003). Overall, self-compassion reflects an attitude of embracing yourself in a caring, understanding manner, recognizing that mistakes happen for everybody, and seeing yourself as part of a larger community. Among healthy persons, self-compassion has been shown to relate to many positive experiences, such as having high general life-satisfaction, feeling socially connected, and experiencing low levels of self-criticism, mood difficulties, and anxiety (Werner et al., 2012).

How might self-compassion relate to social anxiety disorder?

Individuals with social anxiety disorder tend to be highly self-critical and to possess negative self-views. Theories about social anxiety disorder suggest that these negative self-views shape how these individuals view social situations and lead to strong fears about evaluation and judgment by others, as well as frequent avoidance of social encounters. Given the research on self-compassion and knowledge about social anxiety disorder, researchers have suggested that individuals with social anxiety disorder might experience lower levels of self-compassion than healthy individuals, and that low self-compassion might contribute to and result from the effects of social anxiety.

What were the goals of this study?

This study sought to increase understanding regarding the relationship between self-compassion and the experience of social anxiety disorder. In the context of looking at different levels of self-compassion, this study aimed to examine the characteristics of persons seeking treatment for social anxiety disorder compared to healthy individuals. In particular, this study looked at levels of self-compassion, symptoms and severity of social anxiety, and the relationship with age across these two groups of people.

How did this study address these goals?

To address these goals, this study recruited individuals from the community. Persons in the social anxiety disorder (SAD) group were seeking treatment at mental health centers and met criteria for severe social anxiety disorder based on a standard interview (Anxiety Disorder Interview Schedule for DSM-IV, Lifetime version) and ratings made by the interviewer. Additional criteria were used to determine if the SAD participants were appropriate candidates for this study, such as having no history of a psychotic disorder. Persons in the healthy control (HC) group did not have any psychiatric disorder history.

After completing these initial screening procedures, participants completed several online questionnaires to address the questions of this study. Self-compassion was measured using the Self-Compassion Scale, which asks questions about several aspects of self-compassion: self-kindness, self-judgment, common humanity, isolation, and mindfulness. Social anxiety symptoms were measured using a self-report version of the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale and the Social Interaction Anxiety Scale. Characteristics associated with social anxiety disorder also were measured: fear of evaluation was assessed using the Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale and the Fear of Positive Evaluation Scale. Depression was measured using the Beck Depression Inventory-II and anxiety was measured using the Speilberger State Trait Anxiety Inventory.

What were the main findings of this study?

Overall, persons in the social anxiety disorder (SAD) group reported more social anxiety symptoms, more fear of negative evaluation, and more fear of positive evaluation compared to persons in the healthy control (HC) group. Furthermore, individuals in the SAD group had significantly lower levels of self-compassion compared to those in the HC group. This difference in levels of self-compassion across groups remained strong even when levels of anxiety and depression were considered. In other words, differences in self-compassion were not observed simply as a result of differences in mood and anxiety levels between the groups. Additionally, levels of self-compassion were related to levels of fear of being evaluated; persons with high levels of fear for negative or positive evaluation had lower levels of self-compassion than persons with low levels of evaluation fears. Lastly, among the SAD group, levels of self-compassion decreased as age increased; however, among the HC group, levels of self-compassion increased as age increased. This difference between age and self-compassion across the SAD and HC groups was significant, which means that the finding was meaningful.

What do these findings mean for someone with social anxiety disorder?

This study should serve to increase awareness about self-compassion and general self-views for individuals suffering from social anxiety disorder. These findings show that persons with social anxiety disorder generally have lower levels of self-compassion, or a self-caring attitude, compared to healthy individuals. This study was not designed to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between self-compassion and social anxiety disorder; in other words, it does not show that low self-compassion causes social anxiety, or vice versa. However, these findings do provide insight about how negative self-views and fear of evaluation might affect someone with social anxiety. This study also suggests the potential benefits of adopting a more accepting, kinder self-view as a means of possibly helping to cope with fears and worries about social encounters.

Where can you learn more about this research?

The main study discussed here is available at this link:
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10615806.2011.608842

REFERENCES

Neff, K. D. (2003). The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.
Werner, K. H., Jazaieri, H., Goldin, P. R., Ziv, M., Heimberg, R. G., & Gross, J. J. (2012). Self-compassion and social anxiety disorder. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 25(5), 543-558.

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