Most people misunderstand the meaning of "chemical imbalances" in the brain. This phrase has become the buzzword to use today to explain mental health problems, including social anxiety.
We receive several letters a day concerning this subject, and the comprehensive audio therapy series "Overcoming Social Anxiety: Step by Step" explains more thoroughly than an article can what is happening in the brain as people with social anxiety learn to progress and conquer social anxiety.
Understanding completely how this works is important to progress and recovery, so this is discussed thoroughly on the audio series relative to recovery from social anxiety disorder.
What follows is a simplified version of these mechanisms, because brain processes and mechanisms are not fully understood and the explanations that we do have would fill several large textbooks.
We can say that no one is "born" with social anxiety. You may remember circumstances and events from very early in life, but there is no "gene" that codes for social anxiety, and there is not an immutable set of genes that cause social anxiety to occur.
At best, we can say that some people have a predisposition toward anxiety in general. From what we know, this is not a predisposition to social anxiety per se, it is a predisposition to be anxious in general.
Why you develop social anxiety has more to do with environment than it has to do with genetics. However, there may be combinations occurring.
People do not generally understand that even if something is genetically influenced, this does not mean it is genetically caused. Social anxiety can not occur unless events, situations, and circumstances in the persons' environment "push" or "lead" the person to develop it.
Because we develop social anxiety over time (although some people feel it hits them all at once), the brain is learning all the time -- this is cognitive structuring -- how to be socially anxious. The brain is learning how and what to be afraid of.
The brain is literally creating new neural pathways and associations that feed and fuel our fears and anxieties in social situations.
This is quite normal because everything we learn becomes part of our neural associations or pathways.
When you learn things about your family, it becomes a part of your brain's neural pathways and associations. Remembering your mother brings back many memories because they are all tied together or bundled together by these neural pathways or associations in the brain.
Anything you learn, regardless of what it is, becomes a part of the vast neuronal associations in the brain, which contain over one billion nerve cells.
When you learn that Alexander the Great tried to conquer the world, as did Napoleon, your brain ties these people together into a neural association in your brain concerning history, historical events, and leaders who lived in the past.
When you learn to tie your shoes, ride a bicycle, drive a car, use a computer keyboard, or learn a musical instrument, your brain gradually develops the neural pathways to make your "practicing" become automatic.
The more you practice, and the more quality time you put into your practice, the more that your brain pathways change. Fairly soon, you know how to tie your shoes and you don't think about it anymore. This practice you did has made tying your shoes become automatic.
Learning a musical instrument works the same way. At first, it is difficult and hard, but the more you practice, the better you get. As you take one step at a time, and practice thirty minutes a day on your instrument, you continue to improve and get better.
What is happening? Your brain is arranging a new neural pathway or association for learning to play that instrument. As your brain develops this new pathway (it grows the more you practice and learn), you get better and better at playing your instrument.
It is exactly the same way with cognitive (learning) therapy for social anxiety.
As you learn, and then practice, the cognitive methods, strategies, and concepts, a new neural pathway begins to form. The more you practice, the more this new neural pathway or association grows.
Progress is slow at first, just like it is when you learn any new skill, but if you continue to practice, you continue to get better. If you practice enough, the habit becomes more and more automatic over time.
What you learn changes the neural associations in your brain. What is in those neural pathways or associations becomes permanent.
Now, how do brain chemicals, neurochemistry, and "imbalances" of brain chemistry fit here?
Your neural pathways and associations influence and decide which neurochemicals, and at what "strength" pass through the synapse (i.e., synaptic gap). Your neurochemistry is determined by your neural pathways and associations, not the other way around.
Medication or pills can change your brain chemistry temporarily. But, medications has no power to change neural pathways or associations. There is no cure for social anxiety in medication. There is a temporary, chemical change in your brain brought about by the medication. But it lasts only as long as the medication is synthesized to last, from four hours to longer periods. But it is never permanent. You always need to take another pill.
The only permanent solution is to change your neural pathways and associations. This can only be done by learning new strategies, rational concepts, and new methods to extinguish social anxiety. Then, these new strategies and methods must be practiced and practiced. This is why we always talk about repetition.
Without repetition, neural pathways and associations cannot change. To have a permanent solution for social anxiety, our neural pathways and associations MUST change.
When our neural pathways and associations change, our brain chemistry also changes. This is a permanent change, because you have practiced the new methods and concepts (i.e., the cognitive therapy) into your brain repetitiously, thus creating new neural associations. The more dense these neural associations are, the more you have recovered from social anxiety.
Everything in life works like this. Whatever you really learn causes new neural pathways in the brain, and, over time, with repetition, you gradually become better and better at something.
Cognitive therapy is nothing more than learning the appropriate strategies, methods, and concepts so that our brains can change. Our new neural pathways continue to grow and our new feelings, beliefs, and thoughts changed automatically, too.
The human brain is not limited in terms of learning. You can learn all you want, and keep learning until the day you die.
Cognitive therapy, if used correctly, creates permanent changes in your brain neurology, and these changes then affect your brain chemistry.
Everyone, barring brain diseases, can learn to overcome social anxiety. The cognitive therapy necessary is nothing more than a learning process... that must be repeated, repeated, and repeated .... so that our neural pathways and associations can gradually change.
This is a simplified version of what occurs in the brain, but it is an accurate portrayal of what happens as we learn to overcome social anxiety.