What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a chronic mental health condition for people who have an inordinate fear of being scrutinized or judged by others. It is not unusual to feel nervous in some social situations, like going on a date or to a party. Nor is it uncommon to have butterflies before giving a speech or a presentation. For those with a social anxiety disorder, however, the level of anxiety and fear that these and other types of social situations engender can lead to life-altering avoidance patterns. This type of self-imposed stress can negatively affect relationships and performance at work, school and most other areas of an individual’s life.

Not to be confused with a normal level of shyness that many people have or the everyday nervousness that we all experience, social anxiety disorder affects about 7 percent of the population and usually starts with teenagers who are extremely shy. It is often linked to a history of teasing, abuse or bullying.

Social Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

Signs and symptoms to look for when social anxiety disorder is suspected can include persistent:

  • Fear of any setting, activity or situation where the individual may be judged
  • Worrying to the point of obsession about doing something embarrassing or humiliating
  • Difficulty interacting or talking with strangers to the point of not being able to
  • Fear that others will recognize that the individual is or looks anxious
  • Fear of being embarrassed, teased or laughed at because of blushing, sweating, trembling or having a shaky voice
  • Avoiding interactions and conversations out of fear of embarrassment
  • Avoidance of any situation where the individual might become the center of attention
  • Anticipation of an activity or event creating extreme fear and anxiety
  • Anxiety and fear levels remaining elevated during activities and events
  • Replaying social situations and analyzing performance to highlight mistakes and flaws
  • Catastrophizing and expecting the worst possible consequences from any negative experience during a social situation

People with social anxiety are typically well aware that their anxiety is not based on fact and is likely irrational. Unfortunately, this has little to no effect on their fearful thoughts and feelings of anxiety.  For many, these fears and anxieties manifest as actual physical symptoms, which may include:

  • Blushing
  • Sweating
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Trembling
  • Muscle tension
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Trouble catching breath
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Mind feeling as if it has gone blank

With a social anxiety disorder, like so many other mental health conditions, there is not just one known cause. Researchers believe this disorder is the result of some sort of interaction between inherited traits, brain structure, and environmental influences. Left untreated, a social anxiety disorder can negatively impact all areas of life by causing:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty in being assertive
  • Constant self-criticism
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism from others
  • Poor social skills
  • Isolation and inability to form or maintain social relationships
  • Low academic achievement
  • Poor work performance
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicide or suicide attempts

Social anxiety disorder can be successfully treated. Treatment typically involves psychotherapy, medication or a combination of the two.