Everyone has a little bit of social fear. Without it, you would never learn how to conduct yourself in a socially appropriate manner. It's a minute amount of social anxiety that ensures we don't talk to dangerous people, or say inappropriate things to those we're trying to impress. Even the most social people have a small amount of fear in them, and that social anxiety helps them maintain a more positive appearance.
But when that anxiety becomes too strong, or you start to fear the anxiety itself, you may have developed social phobia. Social phobia is a diagnosable anxiety disorder and one that can benefit from treatments designed to fight these social fears.
What is Social Anxiety?
Human beings are naturally social creatures. We need to be around others to feel supported, and we recognize and understand social cues and social taboos. Unfortunately, this same social drive can cause a great deal of fear, often because we know that others are judging us as social creatures just as we are judging them.
While some people develop healthy levels of social anxiety, millions of people suffer from social phobia – a type of severe anxiety that displays many of the characteristics of a true phobia:
Those with social phobia:
- Experience profound anxiety at the mere thought of social interaction.
- Are often extremely worried about being judged by others.
- Compulsively avoid situations that may force you out of your social comfort zone.
- Often are extensively concerned about how they'll act in public.
- May experience worst case scenario thinking about social interactions.
If you have social anxiety disorder, you may relate to any or all of these symptoms. Or perhaps you're unsure if what you have would be considered social anxiety in the clinical sense. The key is not necessarily whether or not you have a diagnosable condition but whether or not you need help confronting your social fears to improve your quality of life.
Do You Have Social Anxiety?
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Causes of Social Anxiety and Social Phobia
Social anxiety is rarely due to a specific issue. Rather, it's a combination of a variety of factors that have caused you to develop social anxiety over the course of your life. These factors may include any or all of the following:
- General Anxiety Anxiety and stress themselves can lead to the development of social phobia. Anxiety tends to cause negative thinking, and much of a person's shyness and unwillingness to branch out of social situations comes from a very generic feeling of fear and apprehension that bleeds into other areas of their life, like social situations.
- Poor Social Experiences Bad social experiences in the past can also lead to the development of social phobia. In some cases, these may be specific events, like bullying or being mistreated in some social situations. Other times it may be less obvious, such as trying to talk to a group that is largely ignoring you. You may or may not know of specific examples of when these occurred, and they may have occurred at any point in your life after you were born, but these social experiences can lead to a fear of social situations.
- Reinforcement One of the main problems with social anxiety is that it is easily reinforced. When you're shy, and you try to talk to a big group, chances are you expect things to go poorly. Then, no matter how your interaction goes, you'll likely pick out all of the mistakes you felt that you made, and those "mistakes" will reinforce the idea that you have something to fear. Reinforcement is a pervasive problem in those with social anxiety and one of the main reasons that anxiety translates to social phobia.
- Genetics It's unclear how genetics can play a role in social phobia since social situations are a very specific issue. But there do appear to be reasons to believe that genetics and brain chemistry play a role because social anxiety does appear in some ways to run in families. However, genetics alone is unlikely to cause social phobia because social phobia can be cured, while genetics are forever.
- Low Social Support Finally (and a catch-22 of those with social phobia), it's possible to develop social anxiety because of problems developing social support. Those that feel close to their friends and family are more likely to feel confident in social situations, so those without social support are more likely to suffer. Since creating friendships can be harder when you have social anxiety, this aspect may be hard overcome.
The reality is that these are not the only issues that can lead to social anxiety. Some aspects are hard to explain, and may merely relate to issues like self-esteem and self-confidence that comes from years of upbringing, learning, and experiences. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of social phobia, but knowing any likely causes can improve treatment success.
Who Suffers From Social Anxiety?
Although anyone can suffer from social phobia, the problem is more likely with women. Roughly 65% of all of those with social phobia are women. This may be due to increased social pressures on women, or because of the way women are more likely to be treated in social situations.
Most people that develop social anxiety live with it for years before they seek help, often attributing it to shyness. Shyness isn't necessarily social anxiety, provided it isn't disrupting your quality of life and leading to extreme fear of social situations. But often when you experience genuine anxiety in social situations, you're suffering from more than shyness, so seeking help quickly can be very valuable.
If your social anxiety is left unchecked, it may develop into:
- Increased detachment from family and friends.
- Greater fear of the idea of social functions.
- Reclusiveness – never going out.
Most people with social anxiety understand how great their life could be if they were free of these worries. But that's easier said than done. And because of reinforcement, often when someone with social anxiety gets the strength to go out to a social environment, they find the experience so fearful that their anxieties feel validated and they become more fearful of the idea the next time.
Are There Effective Treatments?
The good news is that there are many social anxiety treatments out there that are very effective at reducing and even curing social anxiety and social phobia. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven very effective for those willing to see a therapist. Social phobia groups and outreach programs can be advantageous as well.
Those that have social phobia do have a bit of an uphill battle, but that's because eventually, they'll need to confront their fears and find a way to prevent their fears from overcoming their life. The sooner you seek treatment, the better, and the more you're willing to commit to that treatment the better chance you'll have of being cured of your social anxiety.
I've helped thousands of people overcome their social anxiety, and to start I have them all take my free 7-minute anxiety test. It's a free and easy test that will look at your symptoms, compare them to others, and recommend appropriate treatments.
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Mattick, Richard P., and J. Christopher Clarke. Development and validation of measures of social phobia scrutiny fear and social interaction anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy; Behaviour Research and Therapy (1998).
Buss, Arnold H. Self-consciousness and social anxiety. San Francisco: WH freeman, 1980.
Prior, Margot, et al. Does shy-inhibited temperament in childhood lead to anxiety problems in adolescence? Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 39.4 (2000): 461-468.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 23, 2017.