We all know the feeling of being nervous or uncomfortable in a social situation. Maybe you’ve clammed up when meeting someone new or gotten sweaty palms before making a big presentation. Public speaking or walking into a roomful of strangers isn’t exactly thrilling for everybody, but most people can get through it.
If you have social anxiety disorder, though, the stress of these situations is too much to handle. You might avoid all social contact because things that other people consider “normal” -- like making small talk and eye contact -- make you so uncomfortable. All aspects of your life, not just the social, could start to fall apart.
Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is one of the most common mental disorders, so if you have it, there’s hope. The tough part is being able to ask for help. Here’s how to know if your social silence has gone beyond shyness to a point where you need to see a doctor.
When Does It Happen?
Anyone with social anxiety disorder can experience it in different ways. But here are some common situations that people tend to have trouble with:
- Talking to strangers
- Speaking in public
- Making eye contact
- Entering rooms
- Using public restrooms
- Going to parties
- Eating in front of other people
- Going to school or work
- Starting conversations
Some of these situations might not cause a problem for you. For example, giving a speech may be easy, but going to a party might be a nightmare. Or you could be great at one-on-one conversations but not at stepping into a crowded classroom.
All socially anxious people have different reasons for dreading certain situations. But in general, it’s an overwhelming fear of:
- Being judged by others in social situations
- Being embarrassed or humiliated -- and showing it by blushing, sweating, or shaking
- Accidentally offending someone
- Being the center of attention
What Does It Feel Like?
Again, the experience may be different for everyone, but if you have social anxiety and you’re in a stressful situation, you might have physical symptoms like:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Stomach trouble and diarrhea
- Inability to catch breath
- “Out-of-body” sensation
You may start having symptoms and getting anxious immediately before an event, or you might spend weeks worrying about it. Afterward, you could spend a lot of time and mental energy worrying about how you acted.
What Causes It?
There’s no one thing that causes social anxiety disorder. Genetics likely has something to do with it: If you have a family member with social phobia, you’re more at risk of having it, too. It could also be linked to having an overactive amygdala -- the part of the brain that controls your fear response.
Social anxiety disorder usually comes on at around 13 years of age. It can be linked to a history of abuse, bullying, or teasing. Shy kids are also more likely to become socially anxious adults, as are children with overbearing or controlling parents. If you develop a health condition that draws attention to your appearance or voice, that could trigger social anxiety, too.
How It Affects Your Life
Social anxiety disorder prevents you from living your life. You’ll avoid situations that most people consider “normal.” You might even have a hard time understanding how others can handle them so easily.
When you avoid all or most social situations, it affects your personal relationships. It can also lead to:
- Low self-esteem
- Negative thoughts
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Poor social skills that don’t improve