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  • Julian Talbot

Anxiety Disorders and Non-Verbal Communication - A Hypothesis

It was somewhere between Port Fairy and the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road that this article was born. My wife and I were driving back to Canberra after my panel presentation at the Risk Management Institution of Australasia's annual conference in Adelaide. The Great Ocean Road is possibly the most spectacular road trip that you can do in Australia so we were deliberately taking the long way home.


While enjoying the amazing scenery, we were also listening to a podcast on psychology. At one point, they were talking about research by Professor Susan Rossell of Swinburne University. Her work tracking the eye movements of people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) - a severe anxiety disorder related to body image - found that they don't look at the same parts of the face as others do, suggesting a difficulty in reading emotions.


When speaking with another person, most people move their eyes predominantly in a triangle between the eyes and mouth. It makes sense, as this is where the majority of microexpressions occur. People with BDD scan faces in almost random patterns looking for clues to intention and emotion in all the wrong places.


One of the other things Dr. Rossell mentioned was that Oxytocin appeared to be beneficial in treating BDD. Oxytocin is a hormone that plays an important role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, and childbirth. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding and the formation of trust between people. It is released during activities like hugging, orgasm, and childbirth, which facilitate bonding.


All of Which Started the Following Thinking


Anxiety is complex and can have many causes. One common characteristic, however, is that it is largely about uncertainty regarding the future and where we stand socially. Unfortunately, it is a global epidemic that is increasing rapidly and is implicated in various disorders. It plays a significant role in numerous mental health disorders, either as a primary symptom or a secondary effect.


Disorders in which anxiety is central include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder, all characterized by excessive and often pervasive worry or fear. Other conditions, such as Separation Anxiety Disorder, Health Anxiety, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and various Eating Disorders, exhibit anxiety rooted in specific concerns, from separation from loved ones to health or appearance worries. Furthermore, anxiety often co-occurs with other mental health conditions like depressive disorders, bipolar disorder, and ADHD.



Sadly, many of our best efforts have failed to turn the tide of the anxiety epidemic. It is also possible that we may have been looking in the wrong places for the root cause. If the hypothesis in this article is correct, the solution may be close at hand.


The Rationale


In the era of smartphones and social media, digital communication has become an integral part of our lives, especially for young people. This shift in communication methods is not without its consequences.


The increased reliance on digital communication in developmental years contributes to an inability to interpret body language, leading to uncertainty about social status and increasing the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders.

One emerging concern is the potential impact on our ability to understand and interpret non-verbal cues such as body language and microexpressions and how this could contribute to the rising prevalence of anxiety disorders.


Before we delve deeper, let's understand some key concepts. Body language refers to the non-verbal signals we use when communicating, including gestures, postures, and facial expressions. Microexpressions, on the other hand, are brief, involuntary facial expressions that reveal our true emotions. These are subtle but essential aspects of communication that help us understand others' emotions and intentions.


Related to this is the concept of mirror neurons, a type of brain cell that responds equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. They're thought to play a crucial role in empathy and understanding others' emotions.


However, as digital communication replaces face-to-face interactions, young people may lose opportunities to learn and understand these non-verbal cues. This could lead to uncertainty about how they're perceived by others, potentially resulting in social anxiety.


The situation is further complicated because the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought and logic, doesn't fully develop until the mid-twenties. This means that young people might struggle to logically understand the root cause of their anxiety. Instead, they may fixate on specific ideas or insecurities - "my nose is too big," "I'm too fat," "I always say dumb things" - not realizing that their inability to read social cues might be the actual source of their distress.


This fixation on particular ideas is supported by psychologist Robert Cialdini's concept that "what is focal appears causal." In other words, individuals, particularly young ones, might attribute their anxiety to the topic they're fixated on rather than their inability to interpret social cues.


Remember the research by Dr. Rossell and others into tracking the eye movements of people with BDD, indicating that they don't look at the same parts of the face as others. This random or at least different eye pattern is likely to cause difficulty reading emotions. But if they aren't looking in the same consistent eyes and mouth region, what are they looking at, and what is their focus?


People with BDD identify as having one or more physical “flaws” or “defects,” which they likely perceive as exceptionally ugly when others typically don’t see it that way. Everyday functioning and quality of life can be severely impacted. Adverse long-term outcomes can include anxiety or depression, feelings of hopelessness, social isolation, or even needless cosmetic surgery or dermatological procedures.


The purpose of this article is to explore the hypothesis that increased digital communication during developmental years might contribute to an inability to interpret body language and microexpressions, leading to social anxiety and other related disorders such as BDD.


In the following sections, we'll delve deeper into this hypothesis and contrast it against other possible explanations. Understanding these dynamics is crucial to addressing the growing issue of anxiety disorders among young people. Let's dig deeper.


The Hypothesis and Competing Hypotheses


My primary hypothesis (H1) is that the increased reliance on digital communication in developmental years contributes to an inability to interpret body language, leading to uncertainty about social status and increasing the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders.


To assess this hypothesis, we'll apply the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) method. This technique involves comparing evidence against each hypothesis to see which it supports or refutes, aiming to disprove hypotheses rather than prove them. This helps reduce cognitive biases and provides a balanced analysis.


We'll consider the following competing hypotheses:

  • Hypothesis 2 (H2): Anxiety disorders in young people are primarily determined by genetic predispositions. The inability to interpret body language or social cues is a symptom of the disorder rather than a cause.

  • Hypothesis 3 (H3): Factors such as family instability, trauma, or socioeconomic status are the primary drivers of anxiety disorders. Digital communication and the interpretation of body language play secondary roles.

  • Hypothesis 4 (H4): The key factor is not digital communication per se, but social isolation in general. The lack of personal interaction, rather than the inability to interpret body language, leads to the development of anxiety disorders.

  • Hypothesis 5 (H5): High levels of digital communication are not a cause but a symptom or coping mechanism for those already predisposed to or suffering from anxiety disorders.

  • Hypothesis 6 (H6): Anxiety disorders result from a combination of factors, including genetic predisposition, environmental stressors, and lifestyle factors like digital communication.

The Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) method involves comparing evidence against each hypothesis to see which one it supports or refutes. Here's some of the evidence you might look for in each hypothesis:


Hypothesis 1 (Original): Increased reliance on digital communication in developmental years contributes to an inability to interpret body language, leading to uncertainty about social status and increasing the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders.

Evidence: Surveys or studies showing a correlation between high use of digital communication and anxiety levels; testing of participants' ability to interpret body language based on their exposure to digital communication.


Hypothesis 2 (Genetic Predisposition): Anxiety disorders in young people are primarily determined by genetic predispositions, and the inability to interpret body language or social cues is a symptom of the disorder rather than a cause.

Evidence: Studies showing a significant correlation between family history of anxiety disorders and the occurrence of these disorders in the participants; genetic studies identifying specific genes associated with anxiety disorders.


Hypothesis 3 (Environmental Factors): Factors such as family instability, trauma, or socioeconomic status are the primary drivers of anxiety disorders, with digital communication and the interpretation of body language playing a secondary role.

Evidence: Data showing a correlation between these environmental factors and the prevalence of anxiety disorders; lack of a significant correlation between anxiety disorders and digital communication once these factors are controlled for.


Hypothesis 4 (General Social Isolation): The key factor is not digital communication per se, but social isolation in general. The lack of personal interaction, rather than the inability to interpret body language, leads to the development of anxiety disorders.

Evidence: Studies showing a strong correlation between measures of social isolation and anxiety disorders; evidence that social isolation precedes the development of anxiety disorders.


Hypothesis 5 (Digital Communication as a Symptom): High levels of digital communication are not a cause but a symptom or coping mechanism for those already predisposed to or suffering from anxiety disorders.

Evidence: Studies showing that anxiety symptoms precede high levels of digital communication; interviews or self-reports indicating that individuals use digital communication as a coping mechanism for anxiety.


Hypothesis 6 (Combined Factors): Anxiety disorders result from a combination of factors, including genetic predisposition, environmental stressors, and lifestyle factors like digital communication. It's not one single factor, but the interplay among them leads to anxiety disorders.

Evidence: Studies showing that a combination of these factors is a better predictor of anxiety disorders than any single factor; lack of a strong correlation between any single factor and anxiety disorders.


Each piece of evidence can be entered into an ACH matrix and assessed for its relevance and reliability. Then, the evidence would be compared against each hypothesis, with the goal of disproving hypotheses rather than proving them. This would help to reduce cognitive biases and ensure a more balanced analysis.


Clearly, there is much more evidence that could be applied to this, and this article is by no means definitive. In addition, I haven't so much cherry-picked the data but just included what I stumbled upon in some quick searches. The article, therefore, isn't some sort of proof but rather an idea worthy of further research to prove or disprove the original hypothesis.


In the following section, we'll walk through the ACH process and assess the available evidence for each hypothesis. This will allow us to gain a better understanding of the complexities involved in anxiety disorders and their potential causes.


Explanation of ACH Process and Evidence Assessment


The Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) is a structured analytical process that assists in reaching conclusions based on available evidence. This method involves three primary steps:

  1. Gathering Evidence: This involves collecting all relevant data that could potentially support or refute the hypotheses.

  2. Assessing Relevance and Reliability: Each piece of evidence is evaluated based on its relevance to the hypotheses and its reliability. Not all evidence is equally valuable, and some might be unreliable or irrelevant.

  3. Comparing Evidence Against Each Hypothesis: The key goal is to attempt to disprove hypotheses rather than prove them. This is a crucial aspect of ACH and helps prevent confirmation bias, a tendency to focus on evidence that confirms our existing beliefs while ignoring disconfirming evidence.

Below is an example of a simple ACH matrix I used to consider some preliminary evidence against these hypotheses. It's a simple table where I have inserted some evidence and checked whether it supports, refutes, or is not applicable (NA) to each hypothesis.

Evidence

Key Points

H1

H2

H3

H4

H5

H6

Social media use was significantly associated with greater symptoms of dispositional anxiety among emerging adults.

Supports

NA

NA

NA

Supports

NA

Increased social isolation from online activities may be particularly salient during young adulthood and adolescence because of the special importance of the peer group during this developmental phase.

Supports

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Increased reliance on digital communication in developmental years contributes to uncertainty about social status and increasing the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders.

Supports

NA

Refutes

Supports

Refutes

NA

Increased reliance on digital communication in developmental years contributes to an inability to interpret body language, leading to uncertainty about social status and increasing the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders in youth with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Supports

Refutes

Refutes

Refutes

Refutes

NA

The ability to read body language reduces anxiety.

Supports

NA

NA

Refutes

NA

NA

Social anxiety was related to nonverbal decoding accuracy.

Supports

Refutes

NA

Refutes

Refutes

NA

Anxious subjects selectively attend to threatening information, and interpret ambiguous events in a relatively threatening way.

Supports

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Social isolation restricted to an early part of development increases anxiety-like and fear behaviors in adulthood.

Supports

NA

NA

Supports

NA

NA

Children and adolescents are more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends.

Supports

Refutes

Refutes

Supports

Supports

Supports

Social isolation is associated with a significant deficit in the extinction of conditioned fear.

Supports

Refutes

Refutes

Supports

NA

Supports

Social media use is correlated with depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in adolescents.

Supports

Refutes

NA

Supports

Refutes

NA


4. Discussion and Implications


Exploring these hypotheses offers valuable insights into our understanding of anxiety disorders and how we can potentially prevent or treat them. Each hypothesis, if true, presents different implications for our approach to mental health.


Let's first consider my primary hypothesis: increased digital communication during developmental years contributes to an inability to interpret body language, leading to uncertainty about social status and an increase in anxiety disorders.


If this is true, addressing the over-reliance on digital communication could be a part of the solution. The addictive nature of social media and screens, however, means it is not a simple solution. Encouraging more face-to-face interaction, especially during formative years, might help, but simply reducing screen time would not only be challenging, it would not address the root cause of the issue.


While there are likely to be many causes of anxiety, if the hypothesis (H1) is correct, then the root cause of at least one source of anxiety disorders is the inability to interpret non-verbal social cues.


Our best solution, therefore, and a relatively simple solution to implement, will likely lie in educational programs that teach children and young adults how to read non-verbal cues and the importance of in-person communication.


Experts such as Joe Navarro, Paul Ekman, and many others have generated volumes of written material and training on this topic already. If the hypothesis outlined in this article proves correct, solving a major source of anxiety could be as simple as delivering this sort of training to our young people as part of a school curriculum.


Ultimately, each hypothesis, and many others, can offer a different lens through which we can understand and address anxiety disorders. By considering all these perspectives, we can work towards more comprehensive and effective strategies for prevention and treatment. Understanding the complexities of these disorders is not just an academic exercise but a crucial step toward improving mental health outcomes in our society.


Conclusion: Non-verbal Communication and Its Impact on Anxiety


The hypothesis that increased reliance on digital communication during formative years contributes to an inability to interpret body language, thereby leading to social uncertainty and an increase in anxiety disorders, offers a compelling avenue of inquiry in our ongoing effort to understand and address the rising prevalence of anxiety disorders in our society.


If this hypothesis holds, it indicates that our increasingly digital world, while offering numerous benefits, may also contribute to a significant public health issue. Given the pervasive and, in many ways, addictive nature of digital communication, addressing this issue is far from a simple task. Reducing screen time alone may not be sufficient and does not directly address the root cause of the issue - the alleged deficiency in understanding non-verbal cues.


Instead, our best approach might be to focus on education. If our children and young adults are spending a significant portion of their developmental years interacting through screens, it becomes crucial to ensure they also have ample opportunities to learn about and engage in face-to-face communication. And not just engage but truly understand the nuances of in-person interactions, including the ability to read and interpret non-verbal cues.


Fortunately, we have a wealth of resources to draw upon. Experts in the field of non-verbal communication have developed extensive materials and training programs on this topic. Integrating these resources into our education system could provide a pragmatic and effective way to equip our young people with the skills they need to navigate digital and physical social landscapes.


Of course, it is critical to remember that anxiety disorders are complex, and there is unlikely to be a single solution to this growing problem. As we continue to explore this and other hypotheses, we have to remain open to the likelihood that multiple factors contribute to these disorders and that a multi-faceted approach will be necessary for effective prevention and treatment.


Nonetheless, if the hypothesis outlined in this article proves correct, we may have identified a significant piece of the puzzle. Teaching our children and young people how to read non-verbal cues and understand the importance of in-person communication could be a simple yet powerful tool in our ongoing efforts to promote mental health and well-being.



 


I welcome reader comments on this article and any suggestions for improving it. And if you think the hypothesis has merit, please share it widely.


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