Most people experience at least a little bit of fear in social settings from time to time. It’s this fear that helps us to learn to conduct ourselves in a socially appropriate manner. For example, a minute amount of social anxiety ensures we don't talk to dangerous people, or say inappropriate things to those we're trying to impress.
But when that level of anxiety becomes strong enough to cause significant distress or interrupt your life - or if you start to worry excessively about the anxiety itself - you may have developed social phobia. Social phobia, formally known as social anxiety disorder, is a diagnosable anxiety condition for which effective treatments have been established.
Human beings are social creatures by nature. We need to be around others to feel supported, and we recognize and understand social cues and social taboos. Unfortunately, this same social awareness can lead to a great deal of fear, often because we imagine that others are judging us.
While some people develop healthy levels of social awareness, millions of people suffer from social phobia – a type of severe anxiety that displays many of the characteristics of a true phobia.
Diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder
It is possible to feel anxiety in social situations without necessarily having social anxiety disorder. If you find your anxiety is difficult to manage, there is nothing wrong with seeking help. But to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V - the official manual of mental disorders used by psychologists) lists the following symptoms (paraphrased):
- Persistent fear of social situations (in which they feel they may be judged, combined with the belief that they will do something “embarrassing or humiliating).
- Feelings of severe anxiety any time they are exposed to that social situation - rather than rarely or once in a while. May also cause a panic attack.
- Personal acknowledgment that the fear the person experiences is more than what should be experienced given the setting.
- Possible avoidance behavior, such as either avoiding the situation altogether or trying to find ways to avoid it only to go anyway and experience anxiety.
- Anxious anticipation of being faced with the event in such a way that it disrupts a person’s life, either their work/school, relationships, or happiness.
- The symptoms of this anxiety, including either the avoidance behaviors or the severe anxiousness, last longer than 6 months.
- The social anxiety is not caused by some other factor, such as a symptom of a drug.
Psychologists use this symptom checklist to determine whether or not you would qualify for a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder. The official diagnosis is only made if the symptoms have been present for longer than 6 months and are not being caused by any other factors (such as drug side-effects, for example).
However, even if you don’t meet the full criteria for this disorder, you can still benefit from treatment if you find that social anxiety is causing you distress.
Causes of Social Anxiety and Social Phobia
Social anxiety is rarely caused by a single specific issue. Rather, it's a combination 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 more generalized feeling of fear and apprehension that bleeds into other areas of their life, including social situations.
- Difficult Social Experiences Having had intensely uncomfortable social encounters 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. At 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 be able to recall specific examples of when such incidents occurred, but these social experiences can lead to a fear of social situations even many years later.
- 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. There is also such thing as negative reinforcement. This refers to the idea that the absence of a negative experience reinforces the behavior. In the case of social phobia, avoiding social situations makes a person feel better, which then reinforces the idea that social situations are something to fear. Reinforcement and avoidance are pervasive problems in those with social anxiety, reinforcing and maintaining the problem.
- Genetics Research suggests that genetics and brain chemistry may well play a role when it comes to social anxiety disorder; and this is reinforced by the fact that this disorder tends to run in families. However, genes alone do not explain the presence of social phobia, as this disorder will only manifest in the presence of certain environmental stressors.
- Low Social Support Finally (and a catch-22 of those with social phobia), is that it's possible to develop social anxiety because of problems in accessing one’s social support networks. 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 poor self-esteem and self-confidence that comes from years of upbringing, learning, and other experiences throughout one’s life. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of social phobia, but knowing any likely causes can improve treatment success.
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 wish they were free of these worries. But this is often easier said than done. And because of reinforcement, often when someone with social anxiety works up the courage to go out socially, 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 anxiety from controlling 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.