An eight-year study examined the relationship between adolescent coping strategies and social anxiety. Findings suggest that a lack of adaptive coping strategies is related to the development of social anxiety. Those subjects who demonstrated maladaptive coping mechanisms when experiencing stress were more likely to develop social anxiety later.
In addition, the researchers found that social anxiety often caused maladaptive stress responses and vice versa. This relationship between maladaptive coping mechanisms and social anxiety indicates that if coping strategies for stress were taught early in life, it could potentially thwart the development of social anxiety.
The findings have been published in Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology.
Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands were looking to explore the role coping strategies may play in the development of social anxiety in teens and pre-teens. Adolescence is typically when social anxiety is first diagnosed. The published literature focused primarily on the relationships between coping strategies and anxiety or depression. Social anxiety specifically had not been examined. Anke Blöte and colleagues were looking to bridge the knowledge gap.
This study, completed over eight years at three different intervals, surveyed 236 primary and secondary school students. At each interval, participants were asked to complete questionnaires that measured their social anxiety and responses to stress—the “responses to stress” measure identified adaptive or maladaptive coping methods. Maladaptive ways of coping with stress included: 1) involuntary responses like repetitive thoughts or nervous system arousal, 2) disengagement or avoidance of the stressful situation.
The data collected indicates that maladaptive coping strategies were an indicator of social anxiety development over time. Results from the first assessment found that social anxiety and maladaptive coping skills often occurred together. When social anxiety was reported, poor coping skills were present, and vice versa. A surprise finding to the researchers was that those who consistently engaged in maladaptive coping strategies as the eight years passed were more likely to have developed social anxiety.
These findings provide clues to what preventative measures may disrupt the development of social anxiety. According to the research team, “At an early stage, when adolescents have not yet developed high levels of social anxiety, but a deficiency in adaptive coping strategies may make them prone to its development, prevention efforts may address the practicing of adaptive coping responses.” Additionally, focusing on coping strategies when experiencing stress may be a therapeutic tool for those with a social anxiety diagnosis.
Blöte and colleagues concede that using self-report surveys with adolescents may result in biased data. First, this age group may struggle with introspection and assessment of their own behavior. Second, none of the participants had a clinical diagnosis of social anxiety, so the results may not reflect that experience. Finally, specific stressors adolescents may be experiencing were not identified or examined. Stressful events specific to this developmental stage may provide additional insight into coping mechanisms and social anxiety.
Despite these considerations, the longitudinal nature of the study makes its results noteworthy. As social media and pandemic responses continue to shape the nature of adolescent social experiences and stress, any knowledge illuminating their relationship is highly valuable.
The study, “Concurrent and Prospective Associations Between Social Anxiety and Responses to Stress in Adolescence”, was authored by Anke Blöte, Anne Miers, and Michiel Westenberg.