Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is characterized by a constant fear of social interactions and a feeling of shyness or embarrassment without apparent reason. Those who have this condition are usually worried about being judged negatively by others, and this prompts them to avoid social situations entirely. When interaction with others can’t be avoided, they become anxious and uneasy. This uneasiness can manifest itself through physical symptoms such as trembling, sweating and blushing.
Social anxiety disorder is similar to performance anxiety (stage fright), but can be much more extreme. It is one of the most common psychiatric disorders. Affected individuals have a general fear of facing the public and are typically bothered by the presence of others. They fear loss of privacy and lack confidence when dealing with others. In more serious cases, individuals will go out of their way to avoid social situations due to a fear of public embarrassment.
Everyone has experienced some level of social anxiety and it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a “normal” case and something more serious. However, when an individual begins to avoid all social relationships because of their anxiety, and their physiological discomfort results in severe distress, it’s obvious that something is amiss. Close friends and family are among the first to recognize this, since they have a better understanding of an individual’s life, circumstances and usual behaviors.
Social anxiety disorder typically begins at a young age. Affected children may have few friends and keep a low profile to avoid drawing attention that may result in embarrassing situations. They will do whatever they can to avoid social interactions and live in constant fear of the judgment of their peers.
What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
Although there are many assumptions about social anxiety disorder, no single cause for it has been identified. Research has suggested that social anxiety disorder can be passed from one generation to the next, but no specific genes have been tied to the condition. Some researchers point to early childhood and adolescent experiences that may leave the individual traumatized to the extent that they develop an irrational fear of social interaction. It can also be apparent from early interactions with the surrounding environment.
Much of the research being conducted on social anxiety disorder involves studying animals, many of which are known to fear humans. This is particularly true with regard to outsiders that stare at them. Staring is considered a threatening behavior in the animal kingdom, and eye contact is generally avoided. This is also true of humans with social anxiety. In fact, human babies have also been known to fear newcomers until they are about 7 months old, after which they become accustomed to seeing new faces.
Another possibility involves the nature and composition of the brain. The brain is in charge of thoughts, actions and physiological functions. Anxiety is typically relieved by medications that adjust the brain’s chemical balance. There are specific elements in the brain that control reactions to anxiety; individuals with social anxiety disorder may have problems operating some of those regions.
Treatments for Social Anxiety Disorder
Medication and psychotherapy are the two most common types of treatment for social anxiety disorder.
People in therapy will learn how to change their attitude and thoughts about themselves, and gain confidence in social situations. The most common type of counseling is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
There are several types of medication used to treat social anxiety disorder. If you feel you would benefit from this kind of treatment, speak to doctor or mental health provider—they will be able to advise you on the most appropriate medication for your needs.
It is important to note that it can take a while for treatments, both therapy and medication, to take effect. We therefore advise you maintain contact with your doctor and attend regular treatment sessions to see results.
While treatment for social anxiety disorder involves medical experts or qualified psychotherapists, there is much you can do to help the condition:
- Make sure you get adequate sleep
- Limit or avoid caffeine
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet, focusing on nutrient-dense foods
- Exercise on a regular basis—even a gentle walk every day can help
- Reach out to close friends and family, speaking about your issues will help you overcome your fear of social interaction
Where all this research will lead remains unclear. It’s possible that social anxiety may be the result of several factors working simultaneously in a person’s life. If you suspect that you may suffer from this disorder, the best course of action is to see your doctor. You may think your symptoms aren’t bad enough to justify getting help, but it’s best to tackle this problem before it begins to affect your quality of life and your ability to function in the world.