What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
While it’s normal to experience anxiety in some social interactions, social anxiety occurs much more often than just feeling anxious around people from time to time. Do you find yourself overthinking before you need to make a phone call? Are you nearly always dreading interactions with cashiers, or agonizing over whether you should even hang out with a group of friends because you may be uncomfortable? These could be signs that you have social anxiety (also referred to as social phobia).
Social anxiety disorder is when day-to-day interactions with others cause you a distressing amount of anxiety and fear. This can make it difficult to go to work, school, and/or participate in extracurricular activities. It can also make it hard to hang out with friends or date! Social anxiety usually includes fear of embarrassment or humiliation, rejection, being judged, and feeling self-conscious a lot of the time around other people. These thoughts and feelings can lead to avoiding activities and events that you might otherwise have enjoyed or want to enjoy.
Signs and Symptoms
People may experience anxiety differently. Some specific situations may make one person anxious, but not another. The hallmark characteristics of social anxiety disorder last 6 months or more and can include:
- Fear or anxiety in social situation (e.g., meeting new people, speaking to people, eating or drinking in front of people, etc)
- Fear that others will see that you are anxious and that you will be embarrassed, humiliated, or rejected
- Social situations nearly always causing fear or anxiety
- Avoiding social situations that make you anxious
- Fear being out of proportion to the situation at hand
Remember, social anxiety, in order for it to be a “disorder,” needs to cause a person distress. Social anxiety feels very much like other forms of anxiety and can include experiencing behavioral, physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms, such as:
- Avoiding what makes you anxious
- Fidgeting or other nervous actions
- Isolating yourself
- Racing heart
- Shallow breathing
- Sweating/clammy palms
- Numbness or tingling in extremities
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Fear of rejection, humiliation, etc
- Worrying about being left out or being unable to overcome anxiety
- Feeling defeated as if there is something “wrong” with you
- Feeling exposed or vulnerable around others, that if they really knew you, they wouldn’t like you
- Racing thoughts
- Worrying that people will not like you or think you’re stupid
- Believing everyone is looking at you or judging you
- Thinking it is not worth the discomfort of trying to socialize
- Assuming the worst about a situation or interaction when there is no clear evidence (e.g., people don’t really like me)
Why do I feel this way?
Social anxiety can be common in young-adults and adolescents, with it commonly developing between the ages of 8 and 15 years-old. Sometimes people develop social anxiety because of having a humiliating experience early on in life or being bullied. Another example could be moving to a new school and not knowing anyone. Stressful life events can contribute to the development of social anxiety. However, not everyone who is shy ends up developing social anxiety, but that can be the case for some people. Sometimes your own genetics can make you more susceptible to developing different types of anxiety.
Remember, feeling some amount of anxiety in life is normal. It happens. Sometimes you may not feel like talking to people or worry about what others might think about you. However, if social situations are unbearable to the point that you’ve stopped actively participating in your own life, it is likely time to reach out for help and get you involved again.
Social Anxiety Wellbeing Strategies
Social anxiety is super uncomfortable. But there are things you can do to help lessen your anxiety from reaching an extreme level.
- Keep a journal of the situations that lead to anxiety
- Practice good self-care such as proper nutrition, sleep hygiene (e.g., no social media right before bed and having a consistent sleep schedule), and regular exercise
- Surround yourself with positive people and challenge yourself to believe that they really do care about you
- Practice socializing, avoidance can make your anxiety feel even more powerful
- This can include role-playing with counselors, teachers, or trusted friends
- Hone those conversation skills
- Pour your energy back into yourself, making time for what is enjoyable to you
- Seek counseling
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Aune, T., Juul, E. M. L., Beidel, D. C., Nordahl, H. M., & Dvorak, R. D. (2020). Mitigating adolescent social anxiety symptoms: The effects of social support and social self-efficacy in findings from the young-hunt 3 study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. https://doi-org.proxy-sru.klnpa.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01529-0
Miers, A. C., Sumter, S. R., Clark, D. M., & Leigh, E. (2020). Interpretation bias in online and offline social environments and associations with social anxiety, peer victimization, and avoidance behavior. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 44(4), 820–833. https://doi-org.proxy-sru.klnpa.org/10.1007/s10608-020-10097-1
Scanlon, C. L., Del Toro, J., & Wang, M.-T. (2020). Socially anxious science achievers: The roles of peer social support and social engagement in the relation between adolescents’ social anxiety and science achievement. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 49(5), 1005–1016. https://doi-org.proxy-sru.klnpa.org/10.1007/s10964-020-01224-y