Can You Make Progress with Social Anxiety Under COVID?

Can You Make Progress with Social Anxiety Under COVID? (Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images)

These days, face-to-face interaction is limited. We depend on technology for the majority of communication, which can take a toll on people’s mental health. I’ve been silently struggling with social anxiety for years now. Only recently have I opened up about it and gotten help. But with COVID-19, making progress isn’t easy.

So I talked to Dr. Laura Aymerich-Franch, a researcher at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, whose projects promote the “uses of emerging technologies for psychological well-being.” We touch on how people with social anxiety are coping now that life has become so virtual and how technology can even help them make progress. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Katelyn Burns: Does technology help people with social anxiety? 

Dr. Laura Aymerich-Franch: I would say, more than technology, the fact of becoming anonymous helps. What some technology and applications allow you to do is become anonymous so that you are not the real you anymore. When you want to participate in providing comments you can do it without using your image or your voice, and no one will know who you are. 

KB: How does virtual reality compare to other forms of social media and technology as a form of communication? 

Dr. Aymerich-Franch: The interesting thing that we do in these labs is the fact that we create avatars. People and participants embody these avatars. I would say, what makes VR  more unique is the fact that you can become this new being through your avatar. 

KB: What led you to research all of this? 

Dr. Aymerich-Franch: I used to be very shy when I was younger, and I was suffering from social anxiety. So, when I decided to apply for this Fulbright Fellowship, I started reading about Jeremy Bailenson’s works and I read about something called proteus effect. Basically, they found out that when you embody an avatar in VR you behave according to this appearance.

So, [I realized] the most important thing to solve social anxiety is not training in front of the audience, it’s changing the consideration or the image you have about yourself. My hypothesis was, “If I have, as a socially anxious individual, the possibility of becoming my avatar then I will be able to realize that everything was inside me [the whole time].” So, I conducted some experiments around these ideas. 

KB: With the COVID-19 pandemic, people are using technology for a lot more things. Do you think this impacts the progress people have made in social anxiety therapy? 

Dr. Aymerich-Franch: I think it’s not gonna be great, in this regard, because it doesn’t force you to make progress. If you can be isolated at home and just interact through these technologies, then you don’t really need to see people face-to-face anymore. 

KB: So, with that in mind, does that mean that using the avatars to communicate with other people doesn’t really help the people with social anxiety? 

Dr. Aymerich-Franch: Social networks are only a form of anonymizing you. So, you are not really making an effort there. These experiments are for the purpose of making progress. We specifically tell people, “You are going to embody someone and you’re going to give a speech in front of the audience.” The goal would be that you will progressively embody an avatar that looks like yourself until the point that you feel confident to step into reality and give a speech in front of real people with your real body.

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