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Understanding Social Anxiety

Understanding Social Anxiety

Do you experience significant anxiety when in a crowd or giving a presentation? Does your heart race, face turn red and palms sweat when in a new environment? Do you try to avoid these types of situations as much as possible? Is this interfering with your social life or schoolwork? If you are concerned that your avoidance might be more than typical shyness, read on.

Social Phobia vs. Shyness

What is the difference between social phobia and shyness? The main difference is that people with social phobia will experience intense anxiety in social situations and will often try to avoid these situations at any cost. If they don’t or can’t avoid the situations, they are extremely anxious the whole time and usually feel some physical symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heart, feeling dizzy or faint, trouble breathing, sweating or an upset stomach. People with social phobia can feel comfortable with close friends and family but extremely uncomfortable with those they don’t know well or those in a position to judge them.

What is Social Anxiety?

If you have the following symptoms, you might be suffering from social anxiety, or what the American Psychiatric Association terms “social phobia:”

  • You have a distinct and persistent fear in one or more social or performance situations (e.g., meeting new people, going to parties, talking in class, giving a speech).
  • You almost always experience anxiety in the feared situation.
  • You can recognize that your fear is excessive and may be unreasonable.
  • You try to avoid these situations or you have extreme anxiety while in them.
  • Your fear and anxiety interferes with your life (e.g., your grades are affected, you have very few friendships, you have difficulty functioning).

Remember, only a qualified mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can determine if you have social anxiety.

Who Has Social Anxiety (Social Phobia) Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • Approximately 15 million adult Americans have social anxiety disorder and 40 million have an anxiety disorder (Kessler et al., 2005).
  • Women and men are equally as likely to have social anxiety disorder (Bourdon et al., 1988).
  • Social anxiety disorder usually begins in childhood or early adolescence and rarely after age 25 (Robins & Reiger, 1991).

What are People With Social Phobia Afraid Of?

They’re afraid of looking foolish or stupid. They worry about being laughed at and humiliated. They feel extremely self-conscious. They are sure that everyone is watching them, waiting for them to make mistakes and show how dumb or uncool they really are. If someone is mean or insulting, they take it to heart and feel crushed. They are overly sensitive to slights and see them even when they are not there. They would really rather be invisible, and they try to get by without being noticed. Life with social phobia is no fun!

How Social Phobia Can Affect Someone’s Life

People with social phobia focus on all the things that could go wrong in social interactions and how they will be embarrassed or humiliated. They have difficulty participating in class and because of that, their grades can suffer. They often won’t join in extracurricular activities such as clubs or sports. They might refuse class trips or any group activity that’s not required. Parties or hanging out anywhere their classmates are is just too difficult. Social phobia prevents people from trying new things, developing their talents and skills and showing what they know. It can also leave people feeling lonely, insecure and disappointed.

What Can I Do About It?

Anxiety disorders are treatable, and many with social anxiety overcome it or find ways to make it easier to manage. In general, most people are treated with therapy, medications or both. If you are having trouble with anxiety, you should seek the help of a trained professional at your school or in your community so that you can learn strategies to get you on the road to social ease.


American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for
MentalDisorders, 4th ed, Text Revision. APA: Washington, D.C.

Bourdon K., Boyd J., Rae D., et al. (1988) Gender differences in phobias: results
of the ECA community survey. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 2, 227-41.

Kessler R., Chiu W., Demler O., & Walters E. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and
comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity
Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 62 (6),617 27.

Robins L., Regier D., (1991). Psychiatric Disorders in America: The
Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. New York: The Free Press.