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Just Shy or Social Anxiety Disorder

Is social anxiety disorder just another name for being really shy?
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Putting the Brakes on Life continued...

In other words, being shy can complicate your life. Having social phobia can stop it in its tracks. "The hallmark of social anxiety disorder is that it causes impairment in your function," explains Sy Atezaz Saeed, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria and co-director of the University's Anxiety and Mood Disorders Clinic. A high school student -- many adolescents have social anxiety disorder -- might be so overwhelmed by the fear of standing up to give a report that he can't complete assignments and fails classes. For Peter, the businessman, social anxiety disorder endangered his career advancement.

"I've treated patients who are very competent, but have jobs well below their capacity because they're afraid of asking for a promotion or going out and looking for a better job," says Hoehn-Saric. This might explain why some 70% of people with SAD are on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and nearly 50% fail to complete high school.

More Common Than You Think

How common is social anxiety disorder? Figures vary, but according to the most recent studies, about 8% of the population experiences social phobia in a given year -- making it the third most common psychiatric disorder, trailing only major depression and substance abuse. It's also widely underdiagnosed, says Saeed. "In one study, less than 1% of the patients with SAD were diagnosed and treated."

Part of the problem: SAD often accompanies major depression, in a which-came-first cocktail of mental health conditions, so psychiatrists may diagnose and treat the depression without taking note of the social anxiety disorder.

When it is diagnosed and treated, though, people with social anxiety disorder can look forward to major improvements in their lives. Saeed's patient, Peter, has seen his career take off after treatment for SAD. Hoehn-Saric describes a high school student whose social phobias were so great that he couldn't even enter the cafeteria at school; after struggling at several colleges, with treatment he found a small New England institution that understood his needs and is excelling academically and socially.

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