Social anxiety disorder affects 12% of people at some point in their lifetime and is the third most common mental disorder after depression and alcohol dependence. This form of anxiety has been linked to lower academic and professional achievement and fewer close personal relationships.
Dr. Jennifer Trew, a Postdoctoral Fellow at SFU, is trying to help people with social anxiety change their “it’s complicated” status to “in a relationship.” She is working with Dr. Rebecca Cobb, Department of Psychology, on a research project exploring how socially anxious people behave in romantic and sexual relationships.
Dr. Trew says, “People with social anxiety are less likely to marry and their relationships are less intimate, functional, and satisfying. They communicate less effectively and they are less satisfied with their sexual relationships — this can have a big impact on other areas of their lives, including their physical health and overall wellbeing.”
Relatively little research has been conducted to understand what can be done to improve the relationships and life outcomes of people suffering from this disorder.
She adds, “Most people have different two different types of goals in their relationships: trying to obtain positive outcomes, such as wanting to make your partner happy by surprising them with their favorite dinner — or trying to avoid negative consequences, such as trying to avoid criticism or anger by avoiding disagreements with your partner. These goals affect how they behave in their relationships.”
By understanding how these goals and behaviours play out for people with social anxiety, she hopes to help them develop strategies that can be used to improve the longevity and quality of their relationships.
Dr. Trew received a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of British Columbia in 2013. Her thesis focused on predicting and changing social avoidance goals held by individuals with social interaction anxiety. She found that if socially anxious people engaged in acts of kindness, such as bringing cookies to a meeting, it decreased their social avoidance goals, making them less likely to focus on avoiding negative social outcomes such as looking foolish in front of others. She was awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from SSHRC for $81,000 to continue this important research in the context of romantic and sexual relationships.
Dr. Trew recently presented preliminary findings from her postdoctoral research at the 2014 Annual Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association.