Most people become socially anxious in their teens. Are you still reacting to it, or trying to prevent it?
You’re hardly alone if you’d describe yourself as “socially anxious.” Almost 5% of people suffer from some form of it. That doesn’t seem like a big number but, when you consider the whole world, that’s 350 million people.
You go to a party and freeze because everyone is looking at you. In meetings, you hope no one asks a question because you’re certain whatever you say will be wrong. Maybe you avoid close relationships because you can’t stand the idea of sharing personal details with someone else. What will they think when they find out you aren’t perfect?
If that describes you, chances are you’ve known it for a long time. Most people realize they’re socially anxious in their early teens.
And if you’ve ever talked to a doctor about it, you’ve probably gotten the same advice: you need more serotonin. Maybe you’ve even been prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Serotonin is a complex chemical, but the treatment is simple: more serotonin fixes all kinds of psychological problems, so why not anxiety, too?
Recent research from Uppsala University in Sweden, though, uncovered exactly the opposite. If you’re struggling with social anxiety, they found, you may actually have too much serotonin flowing through your brain.
This is a potentially huge revelation if you struggle with social anxiety. Here’s what the researchers found, and the things you can do now to act on those findings and reduce your social anxiety.
Wait. What The Heck Is Serotonin?
Before you fix a problem, it’s good to know a little about what causes it in the first place. In this case, the cause is serotonin. Explaining the finer details of it is beyond this author’s credentials, but here are the basics you should know:
- It’s a neurotransmitter. That means it helps signals and information get from one part of your brain to another (or out to the body).
- Your brain depends on it to work properly. It’s one of the most prevalent neurotransmitters in your brain, and the messages it delivers help make up who you are.
- Most of it is actually in your body. Though it’s primarily talked about in relation to your brain, about 90% of your serotonin is actually found in your gut and blood platelets. It’s believed to help moderate a number of other bodily functions.
- It comes from turkeys. Just kidding (sort of). Serotonin is created by a combination of chemicals, the base of which is tryptophan—the substance everyone likes to blame for why you get sleepy after eating Thanksgiving dinner… except that it doesn’t. Turkey does contain tryptophan, but so does any meat, most dairy products, and lots of other things like nuts and high-protein foods.
- It influences many brain/body functions like mood, appetite, sexual desire, some social functions, and myriad other things.
And Why Do I Need Less Of It?
This is the funny thing about serotonin and anxiety. While it’s not completely understood, many studies have shown raising your serotonin levels is incredibly effective at treating the undesirable effects of all kinds of psychological illnesses… including anxiety.
But, just this year, a team of medical researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden ran a study on a pool of participants who suffered specifically from social anxiety—they struggled in situations with other people and large crowds.
Over a series of tests, they found serotonin levels in the amygdala—that tiny part of your brain near the stem that controls emotions (specifically fear)—was positively correlated with social anxiety. Basically, the more serotonin they found, the more you suffered from debilitating social anxiety.
This is the opposite of most established science but one of the first studies to look specifically at social anxiety—a subset of all the anxieties you could suffer from. Even though an increase in serotonin can help with anxiety, this is a good indication it’s actually the wrong approach for this type of anxiety.
And it looks like the right approach is the polar opposite: less serotonin = less social anxiety.
So, How Do I Lower My Serotonin?
In this department, there’s good and bad news. The good news is you can lower your serotonin levels, and probably without taking drugs (talk to your doctor before starting any kind of treatment, of course). The bad news is that until recently, no one ever wanted to lower their serotonin levels—there was no known reason for it. The focus for a long time has been elevating them, so there isn’t much research or literature about it.
Since we’re talking about polar opposite scenarios, though, we can take some clues from how to raise your serotonin levels and flip them around for the desired effect.
Health researcher, Matt Stone, has some ideas.
- Eat more digestible foods. Since so much of your serotonin is produced in your gut, it makes sense to start there. More serotonin is produced when your digestion is slower, and high fiber / difficult to digest foods will exacerbate it. You can lower your serotonin levels the same way you would treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome—by eating low-fiber, well-cooked, and easily digestible foods. Theoretically, less serotonin produced in your gut means less of it making it to your brain where the problem is caused.
- Stop watching TV. Serotonin production seems to be linked to low-frequency brain wave production—alpha waves, for example. And when does your brain produce mass amounts of alpha waves? When you’re “relaxing to guided imagery.”  In other words, watching TV. Spending a ton of time on your computer or in front of your phone probably isn’t a lot better, but watching TV and movies is the biggest offender that’s easiest to control.
- Actively use your mind. To get your brain producing higher frequencies while you’re busy not watching TV, try spending your time pondering the solution to problems, doing puzzles, or writing.
- Eat less meat. Much of the tryptophan your body relies on to produce serotonin comes from eating muscle meat and other high-protein foods. If you eat a lot of meat, try eating… less.
- Get outside more. Holing yourself up inside—a common occurrence in modern life—can wreak havoc on all kinds of bodily processes, serotonin production not excluded. Make it a point to get outside early and often daily.
My favorite piece of advice on lowering serotonin is that bit on engaging in activities that challenge your brain. In researching this article, I learned one of the most challenging things your brain can do is to process conversation. All the concentration required to have an active conversation with someone—deciphering words, grasping tone, processing body language—produces high frequency brain waves. You know, the things that actively prevent the production of serotonin.
If you suffer from social anxiety, thanks to this research you have a new strategy for overcoming it. And perhaps the best thing you can do to put that strategy to work is submit yourself to a little exposure therapy.
Originally appeared at Riskology. Reprinted with permission.
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