What Is Social Anxiety?

Updated October 6, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever been consumed with intense fear at the thought of meeting strangers, or do you constantly feel as if those around you are forming negative opinions of you? When you've needed to speak publicly for a final, were you trembling without knowing why? Sometimes these fears can be confused with just shyness. In fact, it could be due to a mental health issue, known as an anxiety disorder. In this case, social anxiety disorder (part of a class of social anxiety disorder) Social anxiety disorder and social phobia symptoms are most commonly identified as a fear of interacting with others, accompanied by physical symptoms of discomfort or self-consciousness, fear of judgment, and subsequent avoidance of social interactions to prevent these symptoms from arising. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health anxiety disorders that affected 7% of the population in the last year alone and are currently the third largest mental health issue that affects people today.

Getting to Know Social Anxiety Disorder

I Have Social Anxiety, But I Want To Change - How Do I?

Different degrees of social interaction can affect each person with social anxiety disorder differently. The most important place to start when researching how social anxiety disorder affects people is to see if you have relevant symptoms. When doing so, it's important to utilize sound resources to determine what the best approach may be for you to treat your social anxiety disorder.

The following feelings experienced in social situations are symptoms of social anxiety disorder that may be referenced during diagnosis:

  • Inadequacy
  • Inferiority
  • Embarrassment
  • Humiliation
  • Depression

These feelings are common in those that experience social anxiety disorder, whether specific social anxiety or generalized social anxiety, and are typically brought felt in social situations such as:

  • Being introduced to new people
  • Interpersonal relationships (platonic/romantic/both)
  • Having "all eyes on you"
  • Being evaluated while completing a task
  • Most, if not all, social encounters (school, weddings, family reunions, work functions)
  • Having someone evaluate or criticize you
  • Being the center of attention

What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?

The exact cause of developing social anxiety is not fully understood. Research developed over time has supported the theory that a multitude of environmental factors and genetics can cause someone to develop social anxiety disorder. External social situations suffered during teenage years that are negatively impactful on someone's life can also be a contributing factor to social anxiety disorder. These interactions include:

  • Being bullied
  • Family dysfunction and conflict
  • Sexual abuse

Note: If you or someone you know has experienced or is experiencing sexual abuse, do not hesitate to reach out for help at 1-800-799-7233.

Chemical imbalances in the brain are also possible contributing risk factors to social anxiety disorder. Serotonin (a chemical in the brain) aids in regulating mood and an imbalance could be a possible trigger for social anxiety disorder. An overactive amygdala (the fear-response structure in the brain) could also be a contributing factor.

Additionally, there are two different types of social anxiety disorder. It's important to note that either type can be severe.

Specific Social Anxiety

Specific social anxiety is the stage of social anxiety disorder where a subject feels anxious or irrationally distressed in specific, consistent situations. For example, if a person feels severe social anxiety when answering questions in front of classmates at school yet is perfectly happy meeting strangers at social gatherings, that individual is specifically showing symptoms related to specific social anxiety.

Generalized Social Anxiety

Generalized social anxiety is a type of social anxiety disorder where a person experiences the same symptoms as experiences from specific social anxiety. However, most, if not all, social environments produce these symptoms. Generalized social anxiety disorder can affect a person in almost any social situation involving people they're not comfortable or familiar with, being the cause of poor social skills, and significant anxiety.

Generalized social anxiety tends to be more severe of the two types of social anxiety disorder, affecting someone in almost any aspect involving social interaction between people other than their immediate family. Generalized social anxiety tends to affect the day-to-day functions of a person. To expand, if you feel irrationally anxious in numerous types of social situations where different amounts of people are present, you want to research generalized social anxiety disorder, and social phobia, to further to better address your needs.

Understanding what you could be experiencing can significantly increase your chance of recovery. Having a social anxiety disorder can inhibit many different facets of your life, whether generalized social anxiety or specific social anxiety disorder may negatively affect your personal relationships with a close family, work, and private life if left untreated.

Emotional Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder has proven to consistently deliver a set of symptoms (whether specific or generalized) that enable social anxiety disorder to be diagnosed by specialists doing clinical trials. Since different social situations can trigger social anxiety differently, it's important to keep track of the physical symptoms to understand how social anxiety disorder affects your personal life so you can communicate it with your doctor during a physical exam.

  • Overwhelming fear
  • Almost debilitating and constant anxiety
  • Strong fear of negative judgment from strangers
  • Excessive sweating
  • Blushing/flushing/ turning red
  • High blood pressure
  • Racing heart
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Stuttering/trembling
  • Rigid body posture
  • Muscle twitches primarily in the neck and face

These symptoms can affect you negatively in high-pressure moments in an everyday social situation. Whether you're on a date with a new person you like, keeping eye contact, or participating in your annual performance review with your immediate superior, the fear response and symptoms of social anxiety disorder are extremely distracting in social situations and can drastically affect your social skills by causing something called social phobia. Most importantly, you're almost always alert and aware of the irrational thoughts and feelings of anxiety you're having but being self conscious of what is irrational is very different than a feeling or believing it's irrational.

The best way to combat social anxiety disorder is treatment from a specialist or professional that understands your unique disorder and is willing to work with you in improving the social anxiety that you experience.

Treating Social Anxiety Disorder

The most effective way social anxiety disorder may be treated, apart from prescriptions of drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or beta blockers is different forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT has been remarkably effective when treating social anxiety disorder, and with the right therapist and the right program of CBT, recovery is possible for people with social anxiety disorder. CBT is one of the most effective form of social anxiety treatment options. 

For most people with social anxiety disorder, "dealing with it" and "moving on" aren't options. Those experiencing social anxiety disorder have essentially been "dealing with it" since they were born. What those who feel intense fear when in social situations need is a therapist that understands what social anxiety disorder is and the appropriate way to treat it for a specific patient.

CBT, and What It Means

By definition, cognitive behavioral therapy is "a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do." To further expand, "Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things such as people, situations, and events." By implementing a CBT program by a therapist specializing in social anxiety disorder, recovery is possible for those experiencing the disorder in varying severities.

CBT is rapid, collaborative, and surprisingly philosophical. When seeking a professional to begin your journey towards recovery, goal-achievement and practicing are two essential components of CBT. Repetition and, essentially re-teaching your brain to behave as you wish in any social situation is what CBT basically does for patients, giving control over the mind and body back to you.

Choosing a Therapist that Treats You, not Just Your Disorder

It's crucial to complete thorough research when looking for a mental health professional to help get your social anxiety disorder treated. Working with a therapist that understands what social anxiety disorder is and what it takes to treat it will help you with a successful recovery. Studies have shown the remarkable success anxiety-specific CBT sessions have given clients, and with the right therapist that has your thoughts and needs in mind, recovery is possible.

Group Therapy: Terrifyingly Ironic?

It might sound scarily ironic that group exposure therapy would be an avenue to take when treating social anxiety disorder but studies have shown that interacting with other unfamiliar people that your fears and anxieties can be immensely helpful for those currently in treatment for any kind of social phobia. "Face your fears" is a philosophy behind social anxiety group exposure therapy and being in a comfortable and peaceful environment like in a support or talk therapy group enables patients to do just this, helping them deal with performance anxiety of everyday situations.

I Have Social Anxiety, But I Want To Change - How Do I?

Social anxiety support can come in the form of other anxiety disorders that the same or similar social anxiety symptoms that you do, and these connections can be a key to discovering how to overcome social anxiety and improve social skills.

Know Your Disorder and Take Control of Your Treatment

Being informed isn't just important for your safety, it's imperative to your recovery. You need to feel comfortable with your therapist enough that you can ask questions, even if they may seem silly. Understanding your disorder and your treatment will make the road to recovery that much smoother and help gain confidence to tackle the stressful life that young adults suffer. Know your symptoms, practice your CBT exercises, and listen to what your therapist advises you to do. Communicate with loved ones, support groups, and your therapist when setting goals, raising expectations, and managing progress towards improving your mental health.

Recovery, and Beyond

Recovery from a social anxiety disorder is possible regardless of the severity of social anxiety disorder. According to a 2007 survey by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 36% of people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing signs and symptoms for 10 or more years without seeking professional help. It isn't necessary to wait to get help for your mental health conditions.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), CBT has an amazing success rate among those that implement and integrate treatment into their lives. By re-training your brain and improving your coping skills, you can transform how you react to social situations that would typically only offer persistent fear. Meeting your boss for lunch to discuss a potential promotion or meeting someone special out for a first date and maintaining eye contact will become normal and something that doesn't drive you into a physical frenzy of crippling nervousness. Removing the debilitating feelings of inadequacy from your mind and hushing the negative thoughts in your head telling you how unimportant or foolish you are can drastically improve your life whether in a professional or personal situation.

Overcoming a psychological fear isn't an easy task, however, the curability of most mental health disorders is sporadic. Social anxiety disorder is a diamond in the rough and can be treated successfully with beta blockers, serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors or other medications in treatment of psychiatric disorders. Recovering from social anxiety disorder with the correct therapist can be achieved through hard work, consistency, and persistence.

Note: This article is not intended to take the place of medical advice. Prior to beginning or ending a medication regimen, reach out to your mental health professional to discuss your options.

Social Anxiety Disorder Doesn't Have to be Forever

Social Anxiety Disorder Doesn't Have to be Forever

Seeking professional help is the best way to begin your steps to overcoming your social anxiety disorder. Resources like BetterHelp.com offer services providing clients with the social anxiety online therapy that suits them.

When researching your personal plan to recover from social anxiety disorder, whether it’s CBT or prescription of beta blockers, keep in mind the necessity to have an educated therapist helping you design the correct program to help you fight your social phobia and improve your mental health. You can look up the National Institute of Mental Health, an anxiety disorders association, or any other authoritative sources to find out more about your social anxiety. Every person that experiences social anxiety disorder is unique with different personality traits, and their treatment must be unique to them. Working with a trained professional is imperative if you want to treat depression and overcome your mental health condition, no matter the severity.

Commonly Asked Questions Below:

What are 3 symptoms of social anxiety?

What social anxiety feels like?

What is social anxiety behavior?

What things trigger social anxiety?

Do I have social anxiety or is it just shyness?

How do you know if someone has social anxiety?

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