Social anxiety

Social anxiety or social phobia is a very common type of anxiety disorder typically characterised by having an intense fear of social or performance situations. It can have a big impact on the way that the person functions in everyday situations and can be very distressing for those suffering from it.

Symptoms of social anxiety

Social anxiety disorder is different from being a shy or quiet person. Social anxiety is intense fear, shyness or nervousness triggered by social situations. You might be very anxious about being negatively judged or evaluated by other people, fearing criticism or being afraid of doing something that you feel will be embarrassing or “stupid”.

Common feelings caused by social anxiety include high levels of fear, nervousness and automatic negative emotional cycles. You also might experience physical symptoms of anxiety such as panic attacks, sweating, blushing, having a racing pulse or dry throat and mouth, trembling, and muscle twitches.

It might lead to you avoiding situations that trigger these feelings, for example, group situations like parties, or situations where you might be the centre of attention, or having to interact with strangers.

You may spend a great deal of time anxiously anticipating an upcoming social situation. In such situations, you may have a number of methods you use to cope if you are unable to avoid the situation entirely. We often don’t notice that these attempts to cope can be part of what keeps the anxiety going. Certainly, people who experience social anxiety often report that they miss out on opportunities during their life as a direct result of avoiding specific situations’.

People with social anxiety often experience significant distress in the following situations:

  • Being introduced to new people
  • Being teased or criticised
  • Performing on stage
  • Being watched or observed while doing something
  • Public speaking
  • Meeting people in authority
  • Feeling insecure and out of place in social situations
  • Making eye contact
  • Talking, making phone calls if in public
  • Being in an intimate situation with one person

Causes of social anxiety

It is normal for people to be sensitive to, and to give a great deal of thought to, social interactions with other people. When that helpful awareness descends into an unhelpful pattern of persistent fear and avoidance, that would be characteristic of social anxiety.

There is no one cause of social anxiety disorder, but it can often appear in teenage years and often stems from a fear of negative judgement from others. Social anxiety symptoms can get better on their own, or you might find that it gets better as you get older. However, if your social anxiety symptoms are significantly impacting on your life, it might be a good idea to consider seeking help.

How to deal with social anxiety

Dealing with social anxiety can feel like a huge challenge when you are in the midst of it. But there are treatments that can help you. Your social anxiety doesn’t have to hold you back or prevent you from fulfilling your potential. If you go to your GP, they will be able to help you decide on the right treatment for you. Interventions like CBT for social anxiety and medication are common methods of helping someone with social anxiety disorder. Many of the symptoms that can appear with social anxiety, such as paranoid thinking also respond well to CBT.

Many people with social anxiety also find that attending support groups can be helpful. In a group of people who all experience social anxiety disorder, you can receive unbiased, honest feedback about how others in the group see you. This way, you can learn that your thoughts about judgment and rejection are not true or are distorted. You can also learn how others with social anxiety disorder approach and overcome the fear of social situations.

Many of the symptoms of social anxiety are similar to that of someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder. To find out more about this psychological problem, please read more on our PTSD page.

How to support a loved one experiencing social anxiety

It is often termed the “silent” disorder as it can often go undetected from those around them or confused with shyness or introversion. However, it can be having a profound impact on the person suffering from it themselves.

If you know someone who you think might be suffering from social anxiety disorder or social phobia, there are ways you can help.

  • Talk

    If you can talk to the person about it, it might help to talk it through together to help the both of you understand more about their anxiety, what goes though their mind and their behaviours in certain situations. The person suffering may feel very isolated and being listened to can be an important part of the healing process.

  • Read resources

    There are lots of resources and information about social anxiety disorder and social phobia online. Learning as much as you can about it yourself, from the signs and symptoms and the best methods of treatment will help you understand what they are going through and what might help them.

  • Be encouraging

    Encouraging them to seek help from a GP would be one of the first steps. The GP will be able to refer them into treatment which will ultimately help them recover.