Social anxiety disorder is an anxiety disorder that affects millions of people in the United States and worldwide. It is characterized by a variety of symptoms and makes socializing and participating in social situations quite stressful.
Most everyone has experienced some feelings associated with anxiety in a social situations at some point in life. Feeling nervous to speak in public, fearing criticism, and feeling embarrassed or shy are common experiences.
These feelings may occur every now and then in new and unfamiliar situations or during specific social events or circumstances. While the occasional feelings of embarrassment are uncomfortable, they do not necessarily impact your life.
What makes social anxiety different is the degree to which it affects a persons’ ability to function in their life. Relationships, career, participating in social and community endeavors may be considerably challenging for a person suffering with social anxiety.
A person with social anxiety disorder deeply wants to connect with others. They want to participate in life’s activities and feel of sense of belonging. The problem is that they symptoms of anxiety influences their ability to do so in a way that brings fulfillment.
More often than not, the efforts to connect and form relationships with others causes fear and anxiety. The fear and worrying involved in the process of socializing is often intense and difficult to manage.
Understanding and recognizing symptoms is one of the first steps toward finding relief for yourself or someone you care about.
Social Anxiety Symptoms
There are distinctive and specific symptoms that make up a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety symptoms include the following:
- Fear or anxiety about one or more social events in which a person is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.
- The social situation almost always provokes fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation and to the sociocultural context.
- The social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
An important aspect of social anxiety disorder is the intensity of the fear and distress a person experiences.
The distress is felt physically (e.g., fidgeting, heart racing, blushing), cognitively (negative thoughts, overestimating danger or threat), and emotionally (e.g., fear, worry, embarrassment).
The level of discomfort may differ greatly for each person and across each social situation. Some common situations that can trigger social anxiety symptoms include:
- being observed talking or eating
- public speaking
- talking on the phone
- ordering in a restaurant
- starting a conversation
- attending a gathering with unfamiliar people
- participating in a group project
- dancing at a party
- going on a job interview
Many people can experience anxiety in any of these situations. Yet, it is the intensity of the fear and distress— and how it impacts a person’s functioning that defines a social anxiety disorder.
For some people, the discomfort of symptoms is mild and tolerable. For others, it is severe and debilitating.
Avoidance in Social Anxiety Disorder
A hallmark of social anxiety is avoidance. We can understand why someone with anxiety would want to avoid the things that create such suffering. In some situations, complete avoidance may not be possible and so enduring and suffering through it is the only alternative.
For example, a person with social anxiety who fears being negatively evaluated by colleagues may avoid speaking up in meetings. Even with excellent ideas to offer, a socially anxious person will avoid sharing their thoughts for fear of criticism.
This person may uncomfortably tolerate the anxiety and still sit through the meeting, nodding and nonverbally showing signs of interest and participation. All the while, they may be experiencing physical symptoms such as heart racing, blushing, and trembling.
Their thoughts may be focused on hoping that no one calls on them to speak and offer their opinion. Emotionally, they are worrying to be put on the spot in front of their colleagues.
Staying quiet is a form of avoidance that seemingly and temporarily helps ease the intense fear of being scrutinized. To the socially anxious person, it helps them at least endure the meeting and keep their job. They also keep their anxiety hidden and avoid the possibility of being embarrassed in front of their colleagues.
Their colleagues may interpret their quietness as them being a good listener. Only the socially anxious person knows the hidden pain and fear preventing them from being more expressive and vocal.
Other avoidance behaviors may include arriving tardy to the meetings or not showing up at all. What starts off as avoidance to cope with the symptoms, turns into a pattern of behavior that sustains the anxiety. This leads to career and social consequences such as being passed over for promotions.
What Leads to Social Anxiety Disorder
The development and severity of the symptoms are dependent on various factors.
Some of these factors include genetics and biological family history of anxiety or other mental health disorders. A child’s temperament, personality trait of shyness and social inhibition, as well as other developmental and socialization history.
Experiences such as whether or not a person grew up in a hostile or highly criticizing home environment. Whether or not there is a history of abuse, maltreatment, or neglect also play a role.
Research shows that stress and adverse childhood events are risk factors for developing anxiety and many health issues.
A combination of environmental, social and biological risk factors all matter when considering who develops social anxiety and who doesn’t. Because there are many individual factors and variables, we cannot be completely certain what leads to developing social anxiety disorder.
However, we can continue to study the risk factors and utilize preventive measures to reduce the likelihood. We can introduce new and different ways of coping with the symptoms to reduce its impact on functioning.
We can provide effective and evidence-based treatment to help people with social anxiety disorder reduce suffering.
Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder
Many people with social anxiety disorder suffer in silence for fear of being judged by others. Some may not want other people to know that they feel anxious as it causes embarrassment and feelings of shame.
It can be very lonely and difficult to deal with social anxiety. It can sometimes feel as if there is no alternative and anxiety will be a consistent part of life. This does not have to be the case. There are various types of therapies that can help reduce symptoms.
Cognitive behavior therapy is an evidence-based and widely used treatment for social anxiety disorder. Stress management techniques can help reduce and manage the anxiety. Social skills training and practicing new relational skills lead to more fulfilling connections and relationships.
Talking to a mental health professional is a great place to start with finding relief for anxiety.
Therapy for anxiety is available at The Counseling Perch Mental Health Counseling, P.C. We aim to improve symptoms, reduce blame, and increase hope.
The Counseling Perch Mental Health Counseling, P.C. offers counseling to residents in New City, New York and all over Rockland County, Westchester County and New York State via online video platform. Call to schedule an appointment.