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Social Anxiety at the Margins

pasted-image-at-2017_01_06-03_42-pmEntering the new year, many marginalized groups are concerned about facing discrimination. The last couple years alone have seen an increase in hate crimes. FBI reports of 2015 showed an overall increase in hate crimes nationwide (about 7%). Muslims were disproportionately affected (facing a 67% increase from the year prior). More than half of the hate crimes targeted people based on their race or ethnicity. Other individuals faced increased discrimination due to their disabilities, gender, and gender identity[1].

Though hate crimes often make headlines, prejudice often takes more subtle forms, predominantly microaggressions: everyday verbal or behavioral expressions of bias. These subtler forms of prejudice may lead to uncertainty and anxiety in daily social interactions. For many of the clients I work with, this is a unique aspect of their social anxiety. Take for instance, a client who rides public transit. She may feel that people are staring and judging her. Typically as her coach I would help her realize that she cannot read the minds of those on the train, and therefore her anxiety is based on a possibly inaccurate assumption.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is based on the concept that it’s not the situations that cause our anxiety, but rather our interpretations of those situations. Anxious interpretations are often distorted–based on assumptions or irrational fears. CBT provides us with the tools to examine those fears and question whether they are true, reconciling the emotional and rational parts of our brains. As a coach, I hold a client’s hand as we walk together through the fog of anxiety to see that behind it all, there really isn’t catastrophe waiting.

Sometimes the journey through the fog takes longer because there really is some truth to the worry of what awaits at the end of it. The effort to combat anxiety becomes that much harder when the anxiety is grounded in real experience. Now what if the client mentioned above wears a hijab (Islamic headdress) and has been verbally harassed on the train before? Her fear is no longer irrational, her anxious thought is likely accurate.

The impact of discrimination goes beyond just discomfort on a morning commute. Research has shown that there is a link between stigma/discrimination faced by minority groups and long term, negative mental health outcomes. Due to what is called “minority stress”, these populations may be more prone to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. [2] While minority stress may be related to poor social support and low socioeconomic status, it is most clearly influenced by interpersonal prejudice.

As Andrea Gitter, a member of the faculty at the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute notes, “people with anxiety disorders tend to imagine that catastrophe is imminent, but in this case they may not be wrong. You can’t pathologize this anxiety”[3]. That is what makes this type of anxiety so elusive.

So what can we do in terms of managing our (justified) social anxiety? When anxiety becomes rational – we regroup and redirect our efforts. The question is no longer is this anxious thought accurate, but rather is it productive? It may be true that when someone stares at you on a train that they hold a bias towards you, but is it helpful to allow their prejudice to deter you? Ultimately, you should ask yourself whether the anxiety is worth it to stop you from doing something that it is important to you. And for most people, the answer is no. I might ask my client who wears a hijab, “if that person is judging you for being Muslim, does it matter what they think or does it matter that you are able to ride the train to work?”.

To understand that anxiety– no matter how accurate or rational– doesn’t need to control your life is perhaps the single most important message for the people who feel afraid.


Armin is a Client Coach at Joyable who loves helping clients overcome anxiety to accomplish the things important to them. In his free time, he enjoys drawing, watching netflix, and finding new burrito places.

Sources

  1. Mccaskill, N. D. (2016). FBI: hate crimes against muslims in U.S. jump 67 percent in 2015. POLITICO.
  2. Frost, D. M., Lehavot, K., & Meyer, I. M. (2013). Minority stress and physical health among sexual minority individuals. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38(1), 1-8.
  3. Goldberg, M. (2016). Fear, anxiety, and depression in the age of Trump. Slate Magazine.
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