Anxiety is a common feeling and can occur at various times in anyone’s life. This makes it easy to dismiss as being a passing phase or “all in the mind”. So, what is stranger anxiety?
However, for 40 million Americans, anxiety is a mental health disorder that they find difficult to control. Though it is relatively easy to treat, it is believed that around one-third of people with anxiety disorders don’t seek help.
In some cases, it is classed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is when someone worries about one or more things constantly for prolonged periods. Or, they may be anxious about a wide variety of issues every day. This extensive anxiety can have little basis in reality and the individual is often aware of that, but is still overwhelmed by their feelings.
Social anxiety is one of the most common of this group of mental health challenges. It affects around 15 million Americans, typically beginning around the age of 13 and impacting on both men and women. For some, this is not just a fear of being in social situations. It is a specific condition in which strangers can appear threatening.
For some individuals, an unfamiliar person can stimulate a substantial wave of fear and worry.
When you think about it, this form of social anxiety is possibly one of the most ingrained and easy to understand human behaviors. Since our earliest ancestors, we have been “hardwired” to be wary of new people. Friend or foe?
It could even be said that many people experience mild forms of stranger anxiety every day. Immeasurable proportions of the US population are reluctant to change jobs, move house or try new activities, because they don't want to have to deal with new people.
For some individuals, this is more than just a reluctance, and their anxiety is debilitating. It stops them from being able to carry out everyday tasks such as shopping, socializing or even working. This is because the thought of talking to a stranger creates a severe adverse reaction.
This is not just a defense mechanism due to concern that someone new might pose a threat.
Someone predisposed to feel heightened or prolonged anxiety could be worried about their own ability to engage with a new person. They may be fearful of being judged or treated with contempt because of their mental health issues.
A bad experience with a stranger who has mocked or criticized them could make the individual deeply fearful of similar situations.
Stranger anxiety could also be less about unfamiliar adults, and more an intrinsic part of separation anxiety. This is when someone experiences heightened alarm and fear if they can’t see familiar people they rely on.
Anxiety is not just a mental health issue. It carries with it physical symptoms, which can include for example muscle tension, sweaty palms, shaking, insomnia or disturbed sleep and stomach upsets. It can also result in irritability and poor concentration.
In effect, it is your body’s response to a dangerous or threatening situation. An instinctive process prepares you for “fight or flight” by producing a chemical reaction, that increases heartbeat for example.
The fact that some people are more susceptible to anxiety than others has not been fully scientifically explained yet. However, it is believed to be bound up in genetics (the traits you inherit from your parents) and biochemistry. Some people are physically and chemically predisposed to react to external situations with an anxiety attack.
As mentioned above, stranger anxiety is perhaps one of the easiest to understand. It can be treated with medications and talking therapies, as well as support to gradually engage with unfamiliar adults in non-threatening environments.
One question that is worthy of debate, is whether society has inadvertently made stranger anxiety a bigger problem.
For example, young people are spending increasing amounts of time communicating digitally, and social skills are suffering as a result. It could be argued that increasing numbers will find social interaction - face to face with strangers - not just challenging but mentally crippling.
Also, fear modern predators has potentially engendered new levels of stranger anxiety in younger generations.
Infants and children can have a natural wariness of new people – they become distressed and fearful if someone they don’t know approaches them.
The irony is that parents teach their children “stranger danger” only to find that strong reactions of fear can extend to new teachers and medical professionals who are trying to help.
There is a body of opinion that in teaching children to be wary of strangers and constantly vigilant to attack, we are (according to the author Philip Pullman) corrupting a child's view of the world. He is quoted as saying that schools and parents are teaching “that the world is a dark and nasty place where everybody wants to murder and rape them... It assumes that the default position of one human being to another is predatory rather than kindness.”