Anxiety is a normal human emotion. It’s the body’s way of reacting to stress. However, in some situations, anxiety becomes overwhelming. A person who experiences a lot of anxiety frequently might have an anxiety disorder. One type of condition involves anxiety in social settings, called social anxiety.
What Is Social Anxiety?
The defining feature of social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia) is intense anxiety or fear of being judged or rejected in social or public situations. To avoid any negative perceptions, people with social anxiety disorder often try to avoid social situations altogether.
Many of the signs and symptoms of social anxiety are associated with anxiety (or panic) attacks, which sometimes occur when people with social anxiety find themselves in a feared or stressful situation.
Social anxiety disorder affects around 15 million American adults, which makes it one of the most common anxiety disorders and among the most prevalent mental health disorders. Causes include:
- Inherited traits
- Your brain structure
If you experience social anxiety, you’re not alone. However, it can be difficult to reach out for support. Recognizing the signs and getting treatment can help.
Signs of Social Anxiety
Many people feel shy, nervous, or uncomfortable in certain situations. This is especially common in young children. Your level of comfort in social situations depends on factors like personality and life experiences.
Social anxiety disorder is different in that it includes such high levels of fear, anxiety, and avoidance that it gets in the way of your everyday life. Usually, social anxiety starts when you reach your early to mid-teens, although it can show up in people of other ages as well.
There are various signs and symptoms of social anxiety, all of which fall into three categories: emotional and behavioral signs, physical signs, and social signs. Some of the signs overlap, and many of them may flare up when you're experiencing added stress.
Emotional and Behavioral Signs
The following emotional and behavioral symptoms may show up in people with social anxiety:
- Fearing situations where you might be judged
- Fear of showing physical symptoms such as blushing, trembling, sweating, or an unsteady voice
- Worrying you will embarrass or humiliate yourself
- Intense fear of interacting with strangers
- Avoiding any situation in which you will being the center of attention
- Getting anxiety in anticipation of an activity or event
- Avoiding going places or speaking to people out of fear of embarrassment
- Fearing people will notice your anxiety
- Spending significant time analyzing and critiquing the way you acted in a social situation
- Expecting the worst outcomes from a negative social experience
For children, emotional and behavioral signs may include:
- Throwing temper tantrums (outbursts of crying and anger)
- Clinging to parents or guardians
- Refusing to speak to people
Some of the external signs of social anxiety disorder include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Tight muscles
One of the main signs of social anxiety is avoiding social situations. Someone with this disorder may avoid or find difficulty being in the following situations:
- Interacting with new people
- Going to social gatherings
- Going to school or work
- Starting a conversation
- Eating in front of people
- Walking into a room where people are already seated
- Using a public restroom
Living With Social Anxiety
Although social anxiety disorder is a chronic (long-lasting) mental health condition, there are things you can do to help you manage your diagnosis. Treatment plans may include a combination of therapy, support groups, and/or medication.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy (or talk therapy) that is especially helpful for treating social anxiety disorder. CBT teaches you alternative ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting and can in turn help lessen some of your anxieties and fears.
With CBT, you may also be able to practice social skills. This type of therapy can be done in either a one-on-one or group setting.
Attending Support Groups
Although social gatherings can be distressing for people with social anxiety, support groups in which every member deals with the same issues as you do can provide a chance for unbiased feedback as well as understanding. You can also learn how others deal with social anxiety, which might give you some new tools to try.
If your doctor diagnoses you with social anxiety disorder, they may prescribe you one of the following types of medications:
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Antidepressants (drugs that change balance of mood-changing chemicals in your brain)
- Beta-blockers (drugs that block adrenaline from affecting you)
Because you can build up a tolerance for anti-anxiety medications, they are usually prescribed for short-term use. However, they begin working right away and can significantly improve some of the feelings associated with anxiety.
Lastly, beta-blockers can help with the physical symptoms of anxiety like rapid heart rate, sweating, and tremors. That’s because their goal is to stop adrenaline — which you experience when you’re anxious — from affecting you.