In the News

Psychology in the News: Are the Gut and Social Anxiety Linked?

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

2nd January 2024

Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is a debilitating mental health condition that involves severe anxiety in social situations. Whilst some of us may be able to enjoy the prospect of socialising with others, many people may experience intense fear in social situations and avoid them at all costs. Social anxiety disorder is relatively common with around 12% of the UK population being diagnosed with it at some point in their lives.

Previous research has established links between our gut microbiome (which is the name for the bacteria and other organisms that live in our digestive system) and mental health disorders including schizophrenia and depression. Newly released research on social anxiety disorder builds on the idea that gut bacteria may have a causal role in some mental health disorders.

Research by Ritz et al (2023) transferred gut microbes from people with and without social anxiety disorder into mice who had received antibiotics to kill off their gut microbiomes. To study social fear, the mice were given low-voltage electric shocks when they approached a new ‘stranger’ mouse, and their behaviour around new mice was studied when the electric shocks were no longer given.The mice who received the gut microbes from people with social anxiety disorder behaved differently from the mice who received gut microbes from ‘healthy’ people. The mice with gut microbes from healthy people regained their curiosity towards stranger mice for several days, but the mice with microbes from people with social anxiety disorder continued to be afraid of other mice indefinitely.

Researchers believe that this study could open new possibilities for the treatment of social anxiety disorder. Foods that benefit our gut microbiome may help to improve symptoms, for example, fibre and fermented foods are known to benefit the gut. More research is needed but it is possible that dietary interventions could have a place alongside biological and psychological therapies in the future.


1. Which behavioural characteristic of phobias is described for social anxiety disorder?

2. Which emotional characteristic of phobias is described for social anxiety disorder?

3. Use your knowledge of the definitions of abnormality to explain whether social anxiety is or
is not an example of abnormal behaviour.

4. Which experimental method did the researchers use in the study described?

5. Previous research conducted suggested what researchers could expect to find in their study
of mice and social fear. Write an appropriate hypothesis that the researchers could have
used for their study


Gut microbes may play a role in social anxiety,microbes%20in%20the%20gut%20can (accessed 28.12.23)

Download this teaching activity!

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

Rosey has 15 years of experience teaching Psychology and has worked as both a Subject and Senior Leader in school and large sixth form setting. Rosey is also an experienced A level Psychology examiner.

© 2002-2024 Tutor2u Limited. Company Reg no: 04489574. VAT reg no 816865400.