Approach Anxiety

Does a fear of rejection stop you approaching people you like?

Does a sickening feeling course through you? Does your mind formulate a dozen reasons why they wouldn’t want to talk to you?

This phenomenon, known as ‘Approach Anxiety’, is incredibly common. It is also the problem which people describe as one of the most difficult ones to deal with. However, overcoming it is a crucial component in understanding and mastering attraction. I receive comments on this subject time and again, all running along the same lines:

1) I’m scared of approaching
2) I’m worried I’ll be rejected
3) They aren’t in the mood to be spoken to
4) She won’t think I’m good looking enough
5) I can’t meet people in a park/cinema/nightclub
6) I’m not good enough for him/her
7) There’s no point trying, it won’t work

Many products claim to conquer this fear of approaching strangers, but very few examine why it happens to us. Understanding the fear allows you to overcome it. There are several very real psychological factors which explain why this anxiety is so prevalent.

What is Approach Anxiety?

Anxiety is defined by Seligman , Walker and Rosenhan (2001) as a psychological state characterized by cognitive, somatic, emotional, and behavioral components. These factors essentially make up the feelings that we experience as fear, apprehension, and worry.

Approach anxiety manifests itself physically, often in the form of heart palpitations, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, shaking and perhaps headaches. You may well have experienced some or all of these. Many people relieve these sensations by deciding not to approach, which leaves them with a sort of “numbness” to the situation, but also with feelings of regret the next day.

Sigmund Freud believed that these anxious feelings were created by an association between a past negative experience and the current situation. These associations are often false, and not related through causality – the idea that one situation directly affects another, but through correlation – one thing “tends to affect another over repeated attempts”.

When people begin to see this correlation as a fact, it is commonly referred to as “Magical thinking”.

There are two governing principles behind magical thinking. The first is the law of similarity. This is the notion that things which resemble each other are casually connected in some way that defies scientific testing.

The second Law is the law of contagion which is the belief that “things that have been in physical contact or in spatial or temporal association with other things retain a connection after they are separated”. Contagion effects have been noted to be stronger with negative associations than with positive ones. Examples would be thinking that you’re experiencing a streak of “bad luck” or having a bad time every time you go to a specific venue.

Freud believed that the anxiety or fear was maintained through a form operant conditioning. Essentially the feeling of anxiety is reinforced every time you are in a similar situation. You “learn” to remove the negative feeling of anxiety by not approaching. These connections of patterns or “magical thinking” are common throughout all the human societies across the world.

The human brain is adept at forming these patterns, but we often find it difficult to distinguish between real and perceived connections. Theoretically this is due to a simple survival tactic. If we hear a loud noise or see rustling behind a bush, it is better for us to assume it is some form of threat and begin to prepare our bodies to defend ourselves, rather than ignore it and risk being eaten.

Our fear and anxiety responses are actually designed to help us survive in a fight or flight scenario. Believe it or not, the symptoms outlined earlier are all useful in life or death situations. Perspiration cools us down, heart rate increases to boost blood circulation, muscles tighten as they receive oxygen in preparation for use. Unfortunately, these reactions are of little worth when we’re searching for a witty comment to make to a stranger.

In short, we learn to fear through a number of negative experiences, and then reinforce it by not doing anything about it. The feeling we associate with approach anxiety or the fear of approach is the body’s natural reaction when faced with a fearful situation. We can overcome it by reversing what our mind has learned.

Magical thinking explains most of the common worries detailed above – a false belief that failure is almost certain because of a connection to a previous situation where we failed. The rest are explained by pure fear, which has been learnt and reinforced by not approaching. Both are self-fulfilling prophecies i.e. unless you actively take steps to fix them they will continue to support themselves. The good news is that this problem can be conquered.

The bad news is that it does take time. The easiest solution is to go out and meet new people. Focus on meeting others for the sake of meeting them, so any negative experiences won’t fuel your fear.

The truth is that most people are happy to meet new people, especially during long, boring trips or while waiting in large queues. Get used to engaging absolutely anyone in conversation, male or female, young or old, attractive or not-so-attractive, also in groups. This should generate lots of positive experiences and help weaken those negative connections.

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