Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million adults/19.1% in the U.S. and 7% of children ages 3-17 years. There are a few different kinds of anxiety disorders. The most common are generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and social anxiety. What they all have in common is persistent excessive fear or worry in non-threatening situations. Emotional symptoms include feelings of apprehension or dread, feeling tense or jumpy, restlessness, irritability, anticipating the worst, and being guarded against perceived danger. The physical symptoms can include shortness of breath and/or racing or pounding heart, sweating, tremors, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, upset stomach, and frequent urination or diarrhea. (1)
Research has found that genetics and environment may be contributors to the cause of anxiety. Studies have looked at anxiety in some families running higher than others, suggesting it “runs in the family” though it is unclear if it is genetic or if it’s learned behavior. Environmental factors include being exposed to a stressful or traumatic event such as abuse, neglect, violence, the loss of a loved one, or prolonged illness. (1) Brain structure could play a role in controlling the fear response. Individuals with an overactive amygdala may have heightened fear responses. (2)
This disorder specifically causes an intense fear of socially interacting or being in social settings. It is often driven by irrational worries of humiliation and fears that others will notice that you look anxious. A common reaction to an anticipated social circumstance is panic attacks. The fear and anxiety a person experiences in social settings often lead to avoidance and over-analysis of self and perceived flaws. (1)
Neurodivergent is a difference in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical. This means that a person may have different strengths and challenges from people whose brains don’t have those differences and the differences can include medical disorders, learning disabilities, or other conditions. It’s important to note that neurodivergent is not a medical term, it is just another way to describe differences other than labeling it normal or abnormal. Individuals who are not neurodivergent are considered neurotypical. (3)
Neurodivergent came from the word “neurodiversity”. An Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, coined the word “neurodiversity” in 1988 to highlight everyone’s developing brain as unique. Her focus in neurodiversity was on autism. In relation, neurodivergent is meant to recognize, not the struggles or deficits in a person, but the “differently abled.” (3)
Social Anxiety and Neurodivergent
There is no formal determination among medical experts if social anxiety is neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is still a new concept. Though if you live with social anxiety, you may feel alone and different from your peers in how you perceive others and your environment. You may feel at times that you were not built to engage in the world around you as others are. (4)
Neurodivergent have widely been associated with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. With anxiety and social anxiety often being a comorbid disorder within Autism, ADHD, and other disorders, then yes anxiety/social anxiety can fit with neurodivergent. Looking again at how much of the population experiences anxiety (19.1% in adults) and the different symptoms accompanied with anxiety, the population experiencing anxiety as a disorder is still less than the majority who do not experience it at a diagnosable level, which again supports anxiety being neurodivergent.
However, anxiety and social anxiety have physical and emotional symptoms that all human beings experience, such as anticipating a big event in which you must give a public speech. In looking at this way, no, anxiety/social anxiety is not neurodivergent in this normalizing typical human experience.
A more refined way of looking at neurodivergent as it relates to social anxiety is if the following attributes of yourself and your daily living are affected by the following – attention span, behaviors, communication, learning, mood, movement, sensory sensations, social interactions, and time management. All-in-all, advocates categorize anxiety as neurodivergent since it defines the brain’s functioning as atypical. (4)
When to Seek Support for Social Anxiety
When social anxiety becomes unmanageable and you find yourself withdrawing from the world around you and debilitated to function in daily living, it can improve your quality of life to seek support. Therapy can help increase self-awareness, and insight and recognize behaviors, personality traits, strengths, being “differently abled”, and recognize challenges. The insight gained in therapy can lead to greater acceptance and healing and allows the processing of unresolved trauma, pain, and frustration. (4)