Stranger anxiety first occurs when we are young, at about the time that we realize that we are a separate person from our mother and that there are other people than mother, father and our immediate family in the world. There comes a sense of fear when someone new appears in our life, and it will depend very much upon how we are introduced to the “stranger” as to how we react. If we are used to being held and looked after by only a few people, we may be terrified to find ourselves left with a complete stranger, with no previous warning or time to get to know them Being left with no one but a strange baby sitter can be a frightening, anxiety provoking time for an infant.
In some ways, stranger anxiety in adults reflects a similar situation, in that we find ourselves with a person, or a group of people about whom we know very little, when we are accustomed perhaps only to being with close friends and family, all of whom we are on intimate terms with.
Stranger anxiety in adults is similar to xenophobia which is a generalized fear of outsiders and foreigners to our community and way of being. Stranger anxiety may be similar to social phobia if the person concerned has led a socially restricted life and feels comfortable only with close friends and family. Stranger anxiety might extend to just about everyone for a person who is, for one reason or another, extremely socially isolated.
The essence of stranger anxiety is that as we don’t know much about this person, or this group of people, then they may be harmful to us and as such a certain amount of fear and anxiety surrounds their existence. There is a component of paranoia in stranger anxiety, because for a person ready willing and able to meet with new people, embrace new cultures and concepts, there is little anxiety or fear, simply an enthusiasm to know more about them and embark upon an exchange of information in the hope of finding common interests and themes.
Paranoia is a natural human function which operates when a person is faced with something, presumed to be a threat, until they can find out more about it. Paranoid thinking thinks of every possible meaning, every possible construction, every possible connection or motive in a situation until it works out what is going on and decides upon its meaning. Such thinking is very useful when hearing a twig snap in the jungle, ones very life can depend upon coming up with the full meaning of it, and very quickly. Obviously we do not go through a similar process in all of life’s situations, in most cases we are completely familiar with our community and the people in it, very rarely do we get that feeling of – hello, what is this, what is happening here, with all our senses alert.
However, when people are unused to changes or lack experience in dealing with novel events, confrontation or meeting with strangers arouses some level of fear, and quite literally such people are at a loss to know how to deal with the situation. Stranger anxiety is based upon our fear that something bad will come of the encounter and is essentially self-protective. Stranger anxiety can exist at a high level in relatively isolated communities, it can occur at a national level as well, encouraging an “us” and “them” mentality which essentially maintains barriers.
For people who find they are experiencing stranger anxiety, the remedy is mainly to try and become less insular in your way of thinking. Find out more about the world, about the person or group you are meeting with, about them and what they do, and their beliefs and values. Direct your communication towards finding out more about them, and above all else – relax.