What Is Social Anxiety? In this article:
Social anxiety disorder (SAD), also known as social phobia, is one of the most commonly known mental disorders. It’s estimated to affects about 15 million American adults. If you suffer from SAD, you probably have an intense fear or anxiety of being judged, negatively viewed or rejected in social settings.
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Feeling anxious about big presentations, or feeling shy from time to time is completely normal and not the same as having social phobia. Mistaking social anxiety for shyness is common beacuse the symptoms are similar. One of the signs that you suffer from SAD, and not common shyness, is if the anxiety starts to affect everyday life and many of your social interactions. A quick social anxiety test can give you an idea of whether or not you do suffer from SAD.
People who suffer from SAD often experience significant levels of fear and self-consciousness simply from interacting with others. Either in gatherings or one-on-one in everyday situations.
Worrying, Avoiding, Dwelling
People who suffer from social anxiety often find themselves worrying about upcoming situations quite a bit. Worrying itself is one of the things that differentiate social anxiety from shyness. Whereas a shy person might feel a little nervous while talking to other people someone with SAD is likely to worry about this situation quite a bit before it actually occurs.
The strong anxious feelings building up inside before a social event often makes a socially anxious person skip the event altogether. Their mind gets filled with negative associations to previous situations where they felt like they embarrassed themselves and the pressure simply gets too big to handle.
If they defy their fears and attend the social event anyway, they are likely to dwell on it a long time after. Thoughts like “Did I say something to upset someone?”, “They must have seen how nervous I was”, “I always make a fool of myself” are common.
Social anxiety can be treated
The good thing about social phobia is that it can be treated! But as for many other types of mental disorders, there’s a stigma associated with SAD that makes it hard to talk about for many people. That means many socially anxious people never take action towards overcoming the disorder. Instead they isolate themselves and avoid any type of social situation. This can result in a very limited life, and may eventually lead to other problems such as depression. The stress associated with SAD can in some cases also lead to other health issues such as high blood pressure, migraines, etc.
More on how to overcome social anxiety at the end of this article.
What Causes Social Anxiety
Social anxiety can arise in most stages of life, but for most manifests around the age of 13. Many things can trigger social phobia at this early stage including sexual/physical abuse, bullying or teasing. Many adults who suffer from SAD report being shy or socially reserved throughout their childhood. It is also common to see children who have excessively controlling or overbearing parents to develop social anxiety.
Research has shown that there is no single causative factor of SAD. It can be triggered by a number of factors including genetics. If a family member has social phobia/anxiety, the probability of you having it will be higher. You can also develop SAD by observing others. For example from spending time with other socially anxious.
There are also studies that show social phobia can originate from your innate conditions. Having an overactive amygdala (the part of the brain that controls response to fear) is linked to SAD. A hyperactive amygdala causes a heightened level of anxiety in many types of situations.
Another factor that can cause social anxiety is developing a health condition that draws unwanted attention to oneself. A number of health issues can do that. As e result younger people and teenagers can start to withdraw into themselves, thereby making them feel socially awkward.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
As mentioned previously, there is nothing unusual about feeling nervous or shy from time to time. However, when these feelings become the norm, it could be termed as SAD. There are various symptoms that indicate if you suffer from social anxiety. These are often grouped into emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms.
Physical symptoms of social anxiety include:
- Elevated heart rate
- Shaking hands
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension or pain
It is fairly easy to recognize the physical signs of social anxiety disorder. Many who suffer from SAD often realize that their reactions to these situations are unreasonable and maybe unnecessary but they are powerless to do anything about it.
Emotional symptoms include:
- Intense fear of talking to or interacting with strangers
- Fear of talking to people in authority (a policeman, for example)
- Great fear of humiliating yourself
- Being afraid of situations that may cause you to be judged
- Fear of showing signs of anxiety such as being jittery, shaking voice, blushing unexpectedly, sweating, etc
- Worrying about upcoming social situations
- Dwelling on past social situations
The emotional symptoms often revolve around worrying. For example, worrying that others can see you’re nervous, worrying about what can go wrong in upcoming situations, or worrying about if you said something to upset someone.
Behavioral symptoms include:
- Avoiding situations that may require you to be the center of attention
- Asking questions to avoid having to speak yourself
- Avoiding eye contact
- Always having a way out of social events
- Avoiding speaking with or doing things with people so as not to embarrass yourself
The nost common behavioral symptom is avoiding. Socially anxious people tend to be experts in making up excuses for why they can’t attend situations that scare them. Or for why they have to leave early.
A big part of social phobia, that would be classed as a behavioral symptom, is using safety behaviors.
Having social anxiety is by no means fun. When you are in the middle of a feared situation and your heartbeat reises, your legs start to shake and your hands sweat it’s natural to try to protect yourself. For SAD, these small protection methods are called safety behaviors, and unfortunately, they have been identified as one of the biggest reason SAD persists after repeated exposure to feared situations. By using safety behaviors you cement your belief that the situation you’re in is dangerous, even though it’s really not.
Different types of safety behaviors
There are many types of safety behaviors. Some of them you probably don’t even realize you use. Here are some examples.
Controlling your environment
- Only going to places you know well, and avoiding unknown territory
- Only talking to people you know at parties
- Avoiding talking about topics you don’t know much about
- Asking who will be at a party before accepting the invitation
Always having a way you
- Making up excuses for why you have to leave a party early
- Keeping a list of fake excuses for ending a conversation if you would feel too anxious
- Wearing black cloths to hide sweat stains
- Chewing gum to avoid dry mouth
- Hiding blushing under a big turtle neck
Keep attention away from you
- Looking down when talking to someone
- Asking a lot of questions to turn the attention away from you
- Telling a story shorter than you intended to, to get out of the attention
- Wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact
- Pretending not to see an acquaintance walking by you
- Using headphones and pretending not to hear if someone talks to you
As you can see, safety behaviors can be clear and attentional, or much more subtle, bordering on being subconscious. One of the keys to overcoming social anxiety is to stop using these safety behaviors.
How to Deal with Social Anxiety Disorder
As mentioned before, it is possible to overcome social phobia. Some people do so entirely, whilst others at least improve so much that SAD doesn’t prevent them from living a full and happy life. Treatments for social anxiety include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, meditation, hypnosis and turning to support groups. There are also several useful social anxiety books on the market than can be a good start! If you prefer digital experiences to books, there are some great platforms that can help you overcome social anxiety online.
The different solutions to SAD often have a few things in common. We collected these things in our article “7 Quick Wins – How To Overcome Social Anxiety Fast”.
👉 Have you tried overcome social anxiety online? Please leave a comment!