One of the most basic instincts when confronted by triggers for your social anxiety, is the desire to become invisible.
Have to talk in front of a large group of people? You wish they couldn’t see you. Have to walk down a busy street to get to the office? You wish you could weave your way through the crowd as if you weren’t there.
It’s almost as if we subconsciously know that invisibility could be a cure for our social anxiety.
Well, scientists at the University off Stockholm in Sweden put this theory to the test by devising an experiment which made people think they were invisible.
First of all they kitted out two groups of people with virtual reality 3D goggles, one of which gave the impression that the person’s body had disappeared and the other of which led them to believe their body had been replaced by a mannequin.
First of all, the scientists tested the level to which the people in both groups accepted the illusion that their physical body had become invisible or turned into a mannequin by showing them a paintbrush or a knife through their virtual reality goggles. They experienced a brushing sensation from the brush and recoiled in fear from the knife.
A third group who didn’t have the 3D goggles reacted naturally to both the brush and the knife.
The researchers then followed up this test by asking all three groups to look up to see a group of serious-looking people sitting in front of them.
The groups with no virtual reality goggles and those who thought they were mannequins experienced a level of anxiety at being confronted by the group, whereas the subjects who thought they were invisible experienced no physiological symptoms of anxiety.
The results of the experiment show that virtual reality may be an important method to treat people with social anxiety through gradual exposure therapy – for example, if your trigger is having to speak in front of a group of people, you could be exposed to public speaking first in a virtual “invisible” situation before moving on to more realistic situations.
It’s also a very creative way for us to be able to consider how our bodies and our minds work in terms of our physicality – if it’s so easy to make us think we cannot be seen, it’s clearly a physical or chemical response in our brain and therefore something which we can understand rather than fear.
To hear me discuss the implications of this research with Mark Sainsbury on Radio Live a couple of weeks ago, visit the website here.
All the best, Kyle