Social Anxiety Disorder

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that causes a person to develop an excessive and irrational fear of social interactions. They develop false beliefs about the opinions of others, often to the point that the disorder negatively affects many aspects of their lives – work, school, relationships, social activities, and many more. For some people, this can be aggravated by lack of social experience or social skills. Other cases find their causes in genetics, brain structure, demographics, or chemical imbalances.

Sometimes patients are only afraid of specific situations like public speaking, being the center of attention, dating, using public toilets, working with others, eating in public, or telephone conversations. More commonly, however, social anxiety manifests as a fear of social interaction in general. It can sometimes be connected to other mental illness conditions, such as obsessive compulsive or panic disorder.

What are the Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder?

Sometimes people with social anxiety are aware that something is wrong, yet they cannot quite pinpoint what it is. Patients will often experience:

  • Intense fear of social judgment or criticism
  • Anxiety about public humiliation or embarrassment
  • Excessive concern of offending someone else
  • Irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
  • Sweating
  • Self-consciousness
  • Depression
  • Social isolation
  • Panic attacks
  • Anticipatory anxiety (fear of a social event before it happens)

Social Anxiety Disorder Causes

Social anxiety can be caused by a multitude of factors, and, in most individuals suffering from social anxiety, there is a tangle of causes contributing to the condition, which is also known as social phobia.

There is a definite biological component to social anxiety – however, the degree to which it actually plays a role is not yet known. In some cases, a parent with social anxiety will pass down the anxiety to their child. However, it is not known whether the passing is genetic, or the child is picking up a learned behavior – learning to be anxious from their parent. Even so, it remains true that some causes of social anxiety are definitively biological.

Social anxiety, along with other disorders, has been closely linked to dysfunction in the amygdala. The amygdala is a structure in the brain which plays a crucial role in the processing of emotions, including fear.

However, social anxiety can also be a learned behavior. Studies have shown that social anxiety tends to develop in parents who are particularly controlling with or protective of their children. Certain negative life experiences also tend to create social anxiety, even in those who may not be genetically susceptible to it. Such life experiences include: sexual abuse or trauma, growing up with conflict in the family, and bullying. Social anxiety can also be circumstantial, triggered by a stressful time, period, or situation in one’s life.

How is Social Anxiety Disorder Treated?

Many patients realize they have social anxiety but are unable to control it without medical assistance. Fortunately, there are a number of therapies available to help people cope with the disorder. Doctors might recommend talk therapy, psychotherapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy sessions with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. Some people may be able to manage the condition without intensive medical treatment by exposing themselves to the situations that scare them, a technique called exposure therapy. In other cases, the patient will be given a prescription for sedatives, antidepressants, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Social Anxiety Disorder Prevention

Unfortunately, certain causes of social anxiety – those which are hereditary – are not capable of being prevented. Fortunately, however, almost all cases of social anxiety involve causes which are learned or circumstantial. Preventing social anxiety in children who may be genetically susceptible to developing it may involve creating a calm, peaceful environment, encouraging positive talk and positive thought, and refraining from overprotective or controlling behaviors (as a parent). In adolescence and adulthood, preventing social anxiety is often a matter of determining what triggers one’s anxiety and getting treatment from a mental health professional as soon as possible. Maintaining a journal can help one track the situations which are most anxiety inducing for them, and allow them better insight into the disorder. For those who experience social anxiety, avoidance of stimulants – namely caffeine, nicotine, and other drugs – can be very helpful.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
November 15, 2017