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The affective tie that binds: Examining the contribution of positive emotions and anxiety to relationship formation in social anxiety disorder


Individuals with social anxiety disorder (SAD) have difficulty forming social relationships. The prevailing clinical perspective is that negative emotions such as anxiety inhibit one's capacity to develop satisfying social connections. However, empirical findings from social psychology and affective neuroscience suggest that positive emotional experiences are fundamental to establishing new social bonds. To reconcile these perspectives, we collected repeated measurements of anxiety, positive emotions (pleasantness), and connectedness over the course of a controlled relationship formation encounter in 56 participants diagnosed with SAD (64% female; Mage=23.3, SD=4.7). Participants experienced both increases in positive emotions and decreases in anxiety throughout the interaction. Change in positive emotions was the most robust predictor of subsequent increases in connectedness, as well as a greater desire to engage one's partner in future social activities, above and beyond reductions in anxiety (medium to large sized effects). Those findings suggest that anxiety-based models alone may not fully explain difficulties in relationship formation in SAD, and underscore the potential value of considering positive emotional experiences in conceptual and treatment models of SAD.

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