Self-affirmation and social anxiety: affirming values reduces anxiety and avoidance

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O'Brien, Karen Angela
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Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a prevalent mental health disorder in Western societies (Stein & Stein, 2008). Having SAD is marked by significant impairment in interpersonal relationships and general life functioning in part because persons with SAD often experience social interactions as threatening and commonly avoid them or perform poorly in them (Katzelnick et al., 2001). Self-affirmation is an intervention shown to help individuals engage effectively in situations they perceive as threatening (Sherman & Hartson, 2011). I hypothesized that self-affirmation would allow socially anxious individuals to participate in more social activities and do so with less anxiety, through abstract construals of experience. Socially anxious university students participated in a mini-longitudinal study which had 3 phases: 1) baseline measurement of social anxiety and other self-report measures; 2) in-person procedures including random assignment to affirming writing, the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) for Groups (an impromptu speech and mental math), measures of cortisol and anxiety, and SAD psychoeducation; 3) one-month follow-up measurement of baseline measures. There was no immediate benefit of self-affirmation. However, at follow-up, self-affirmed students reported significantly less discomfort, anxiety, and distress with regards to a variety of social behaviors as well as a significantly more engagement in these behaviors, compared with their baseline and non-affirmed students. Contrary to expectations, construals shifted to concrete over the course of the study for both the affirmed and non-affirmed. As it was not clear the immediate threat of the TSST was necessary to reveal the benefit of self-affirmation, a second study was conducted. Study 2 had the same phases as the first but without the in-person components of Phase 2, with a winter term follow-up to examine level of construal, and included both socially phobic and non-socially phobic students. Results indicated an effect of time of term on construals and provided evidence that at least one of the in-person components of Study 1 may be necessary for there to be a benefit of self-affirmation. Implications of these results for broadening our conceptualization of self-affirmation and for its potential utility as an adjunct to exposure-based therapies for SAD are discussed.
Social anxiety, Self-affirmation, Level of construal