Jennifer Trew sheds light on socially anxious behaviours in the hopes of helping people make more meaningful connections
Those with social anxiety imagine the social arena as a minefield rife with potential opportunities for embarrassment, conflict and rejection, and so avoid them at all costs. However, considering that happiness studies consistently find strong relationships to be markers of wellbeing, people have a lot to lose by holding such beliefs. But, despite social anxiety disorder being the third most common mental disorder after depression and alcohol dependence (and often just as destructive) it doesn’t garner much discussion. SFU postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jennifer Trew is working to change this with her research.
Trew completed her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2013 and her doctoral dissertation presented a framework to help understand social interaction anxiety and identify ways to overcome social avoidance. Soon after, she was awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at SFU from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to build on these novel findings.
“Social anxiety wasn’t recognized as a disorder until the 1980s but it can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives,” says Trew.
Her research on the affliction made headlines in 2015 when a study she co-authored with UBC’s Dr. Lynn Alden showed that engaging in kind acts can help mitigate preoccupation with self-protection and increase expectations of a positive response, effectively enabling the socially anxious person to feel more relaxed and willing to engage. So, by bringing cookies to a meeting or opening doors for others, individuals could rack up positive social experiences and gain the confidence they need to take more of the interpersonal risks that are a prerequisite to develop rewarding relationships.
Trew’s more recent work continues to explore social anxiety, this time with SFU colleague Dr. Rebecca Cobb. They are currently holding speed dating events in order to investigate how social anxiety can affect romantic and sexual relationships.
“Speed dating provides us with an excellent opportunity to study how romantic attraction works, how new relationships develop, and how social anxiety fits into this picture,” says Trew. “There is surprisingly little research out there examining how it affects intimate relationships and even less research examining the development of new romantic relationships in the context of social anxiety. It’s an exciting study that is taking social anxiety research in a new direction.“
Socially anxious people have been shown to experience fewer positive emotions than non-anxious people and may be less driven to pursue positive outcomes in their lives. Given this, such research being done at SFU could have life-altering effects.
Dr. Jennifer Trew is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at SFU working out of the psychology department's Close Relationships Lab. She was awarded a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship to pursue research examining romantic relationships in social anxiety. She is particularly interested in the role that approach and avoidance processes, attachment, and communication play in relationship quality and sexual satisfaction in the context of social anxiety. Trew recently conducted an online study investigating this topic. She is also involved in a larger lab project looking at the role of communication in established dating relationships.
Q & A with Dr. Jennifer Trew
How would you sum up the value of university research in one word?
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
My work is in many ways the product of the high level of engagement at SFU. My faculty supervisor, the graduate students in my lab, and my former directed studies student have all been sources of insights and ideas. We also have a fantastic team of undergraduate research assistants who are actively engaged in the research and have made a meaningful contribution to our projects. Many of my participants were also from the SFU community and it is always great to see how interested and enthusiastic they are about the research.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Collaboration is incredibly important! Different researchers and research teams bring in new areas of expertise and ways of looking at things that can help you develop a whole new understanding of a topic. It is always interesting to learn about how others approach an issue and this can lead to new advancements that would not otherwise be possible.
Putting one's research out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you get your courage?
I have had excellent role models throughout my training who have been very successful and who have encouraged me to be persistent and get my work out there. It really helps to look at all that they have accomplished and to remind myself that all research contributes to our understanding of the world in some way and can be an important stepping stone for future advancements.