SA and Social Anxiety Disorder

I don’t know if this is something that has been looked into, but being someone who suffers from anxiety, I really wanted to explore it further.

We all know anxiety disorders can, and I say this with caution, limit certain activities. Of course, over time and with practice, these hurdles can be overcome and the limits set by our mind and by the illness can be lifted. But I’m curious as to how this would affect your awareness.

I’m currently writing an essay which requires me to discuss a question regarding Social Awareness (SA). That is what prompted the thought above, and to write this post. SA is an ideology that is relatively new, with the first proper theoretical frameworks only being presented about 30 years ago. One of the most prominent, and, even to this day, most used theories is by American engineer and US Air Force Chief Scientist, Mica Endsley. Endsley defined SA as being:

‘the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future’

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Endsley’s first SA theoretical framework

She explains her definition using a three tier hierarchical system (perception, comprehension and projection), and the influence of various elements and individual factors on the outcome of SA. This is a very traditional approach to SA, stating that the outcome depends on only the individual. Though there have been many others who have built on this theory, the ideology stayed the same until about 1995, when cognitive scientist Professor Edwin Hutchin introduced the idea of distributed cognitive process:

‘awareness does not happen exclusively within one person’s head. Awareness is a property of the system’.

This is a topic that is still being debated by those who study it, but the foundation is the same, which is based off the definition provided by Endsley.

If we look at the first part of the definition, it talks about the perception of elements in our surroundings, where the elements depend on the situation you are in. It is known that social anxiety disorder (SAD) can warp how we perceive those around us and their intentions. The thoughts can become overwhelming, not giving any room for anything else you need to be worrying about. In such a situation, is our situational awareness flawed?

Symptoms of SAD include the following:

  • panic attacks
  • unable to think straight/losing focus
  • intense anxiety in social situations
  • poor concentration and short term memory
  • easily distracted or uncoordinated

The above symptoms are ones that have a negative consequence on SA, as SA relies on human properties directly linked to these symptoms. To recap, the first level of SA is perception, which is heavily limited when faced with lack of concentration or when feeling distracted. Endsley tells us, in her 1995 paper, that ‘directional attention is needed for not only perceiving and processing…but also the later stages of decision making and response execution’. Short term memory may also have a negative impact on these the higher levels. Although it is an important factor in the SA framework, it works along side long term memory to complete later stages. This is because long term memory, and prior experience, are used to help project the future status of the situation (level 3), and in a situation where there is a absence of of long term memory stores, the working memory is overloaded, leading to what Dr Martin Fracker calls ‘the main bottleneck for SA’. Endsley summarises that ‘a person’s SA is restricted by limited attention and working memory capacity… long term memory … can largely circumvent these limits’.

In 2013, an article was released by group of professors who investigated gaze perception in those suffering from SAD. They explain that, contrary to typical mammal gaze perception (a sign of danger or threat), humans ‘associate mutual gaze with positive interest, such as love and attraction … Yet … find eye contact uncomfortable’. This is something most of us can relate to – when we catch a stranger staring at us right in our eyes, or difficulty maintaining eye contact with someone you are talking to (especially if they are someone you don’t know too well), when discussing a difficult topic, or even when talking to someone we really like. Yes, even in that heart fluttering, positive moment, we find it uncomfortable.

So if this is what healthy human beings feel, how do those suffering from mental illnesses, or SAD in this case, perceive gaze, and what effect does it have on their day-to-day behaviour and SA? We can neatly summarise that gaze perception plays a big role in our social interactions, but this is the key issue with SAD, so it can be assumed that gaze perception is disrupted. The article goes on to summarise that those with SAD showed abnormal gaze perception, and in some cases can result in a ‘negative cascade of somatic, cognitive, and behavioural consequences’.

Another area that is explored in Endsley’s previously mentioned paper is the effect of different types of stress on SA, with one being social psychological stressors such as fear, anxiety and uncertainty. One of the consequences of these stressors is a narrowing of the individual’s field of attention, affecting the earlier stages of decision making, which can prove detrimental or threatening in emergency conditions. This is worsened in stressful situations where an absence of long-term memory is experienced, and requires heavy reliance on working-memory.

Of course, I can delve into more detail regarding other factors and connections between SA and SAD, but the outcome is quite evident. SA relies heavily on a person’s state of knowledge about their environment,  but this knowledge is limited when the human factors needed for SA are being negatively affected by SAD. This could be seen as a reason for one side of the negative social stigma around SAD and other mental health illnesses.

In certain professional environments, presenteeism, and/or lack of SA due to SAD and symptoms of SAD, could lead to serious consequences, such as endangering or threatening others. But when informing a potential employer of a disorder, many have found it to interfere with the outcome. Though there is no direct correlation and each case is unique, and despite SAD being more highly treatable than some other forms of mental health problems, there is the risk of some treatments increasing the risk in a workplace environment instead of decreasing it. One applicable industry is aviation, where pilots undergo medical examinations half-yearly and can have their medical licence revoked if they aren’t seen to be fit to work. An extreme case of the consequences of this is the recent Germanwings accident.

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However, in this industry and numerous others, in day to day activities, the complexity of mental health disorders isn’t understood well, and is overlooked or given very little focus. No wonder the importance of understanding mental health is an ever growing issue and in order to overcome this, it requires a prompt and effective change in the way it is perceived.

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