What Is Social Anxiety?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Have you ever been consumed with intense fear at the thought of meeting strangers, or do you constantly feel that people have negative opinions of you? If you need to speak publicly, do you tremble and become excessively nervous without knowing why? Sometimes, these experiences are chalked up to shyness, but they could indicate something more serious. What is social phobiaSocial anxiety disorder is generally defined as a persistent fear of social situations where you are exposed to unfamiliar people or scrutiny and a fear of being humiliated or embarrassed. If you believe you may be living with social anxiety disorder, online therapy can be an excellent first step toward relief and improved mental health.

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What causes social anxiety disorder?

Research indicates that social anxiety disorder may affect between five and 10% of people worldwide. It’s typically considered to be the most common anxiety disorder and the third most common mental health disorder. 

The causes of social anxiety are not entirely understood. Research indicates that social anxiety disorder usually involves multiple parts of the brain, and genetics often affects how those parts of the brain function.

Despite that, research also suggests that environmental factors may play a role as well. Overly controlling or intrusive parenting can affect temperament to the extent that a child may develop a social anxiety disorder. Stressful and adverse life events can also play a part in the development of social anxiety.

Types of social anxiety disorder

Specific social anxiety

Specific social anxiety may be when a person 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 comfortable meeting strangers at social gatherings, that individual is likely showing symptoms of specific social anxiety.

Generalized social anxiety

Generalized social anxiety may be when a person experiences symptoms in most, if not all, social environments. It can affect a person in almost any social situation.

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Generalized social anxiety tends to be more severe, as it can affect someone in almost any situation involving social interaction with people other than their immediate family and friends. It tends to affect the way a person functions in their everyday life.

Symptoms of social anxiety disorder

People who have social anxiety may experience the following symptoms: 

  • Anxiety about being with other people
  • Feeling self-conscious and embarrassed in front of other people
  • Difficulty talking to other people
  • Difficulty making and keeping friends
  • Fear of judgment
  • Avoiding public places
  • Worrying for days or weeks about a public event

People with this condition may also experience physical symptoms when around groups of people, such as:

  • Blushing
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • Arrhythmia
  • Muscle tension

These symptoms can negatively affect people in high-pressure moments or everyday social situations. Whether you're on a first date with someone you like or participating in your annual performance review at work, the fear response and symptoms of social anxiety disorder are often incredibly distracting and can drastically affect your social skills.

Treating social anxiety disorder

If left untreated, social anxiety disorder can worsen and have debilitating effects. It may result in lower education, poor work performance, lower-quality relationships, and decreased quality of life. This condition is also frequently associated with low self-esteem, suicidal ideation*, financial issues, and lower socioeconomic status. 

Up to 90% of people with social anxiety disorder may have other mental health conditions as well, potentially including depression or substance use disorder. Social anxiety disorder is normally treatable, but many people experience symptoms for decades before they seek help.

It can be beneficial to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing social anxiety disorder symptoms. Research indicates that various treatments, usually involving social anxiety therapy like CBT, can effectively treat this condition.

Trials comparing treatment with only medication or only therapy show that medication may have faster results than CBT, but CBT’s effects tend to be longer-lasting. Never start or stop any medication unless under the guidance of a licensed medical professional.

*If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please know that help is available. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime, 24/7, at 988.

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is generally based on the idea that our thoughts may lead to our feelings and behaviors, rather than external factors like people, situations, and events. By participating in CBT with a therapist specializing in social anxiety disorder, you can start to overcome your symptoms. 

Social anxiety disorder doesn’t have to be forever

Though the idea of social anxiety group therapy may sound intimidating to the person coping with social anxiety, this can also be a good way to face the fear in a safe and friendly environment.

Seeking professional help is usually the best way to begin overcoming social anxiety disorder. Talk to your doctor to come up with a treatment plan, and if you’re considering cognitive behavioral therapy, consider reaching out to a therapist through an online therapy platform.

Online therapy frequently has many benefits for people with social anxiety disorder. If you find it overwhelming to make multiple phone calls to find an open appointment slot, commute to a therapist’s office, and meet with someone to talk face-to-face, getting online treatment may be a good option for you. Getting online therapy from the comfort and safety of your home can lower the stress you may feel about starting treatment. 

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Learn the skills you need to manage social anxiety

Research indicates that online therapy can also be highly successful. One review found that CBT usually led to a 50% improvement in symptoms of multiple disorders, including social anxiety disorder. If you are experiencing symptoms of social anxiety disorder, online CBT may be an ideal way to seek treatment and work through your fears.

Takeaway

Social anxiety disorder typically involves a persistent fear of social situations and potential embarrassment. There may be two types of social anxiety disorder, specific social anxiety and generalized social anxiety. Both can come with mental and physical symptoms that often make it difficult to function normally in social situations and sometimes in everyday life. Social anxiety disorder is usually treated with a combination of therapy and medication. If anxiety symptoms make it difficult to seek help in person, you might reach out for the professional guidance you deserve by joining an online therapy platform.
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