Social Anxiety Disorder

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Colin Tidy | Last edited

Social anxiety disorder is sometimes called social phobia. Social anxiety disorder is not just shyness; it is more severe than this.

What is social anxiety disorder?

Prof Swaran Singh

With social anxiety disorder you become very anxious about what other people may think of you, or how they may judge you. As a result you have great difficulty in social situations, which can affect your day-to-day life.

Symptoms include:

  • A marked fear or dread of social situations. You fear that you will act in an embarrassing or humiliating way and that other people will think you are stupid, inadequate, foolish, etc:
    • In some cases the fear is only for certain situations where you will be looked at by others, even if they are known to you. For example, you become very anxious if you have to 'perform' in some way, such as giving a talk or presentation, taking part in a discussion at work or school, etc. However, you are OK in informal social gatherings.
    • In other cases the fear occurs for most social situations where you may meet strangers. This can even include eating in public places, as you fear you may act in an embarrassing way.
  • You may have weeks of anxiety prior to a social event or an event where you have to 'perform'.
  • You avoid such situations as much as possible.
  • If you go to the feared situation, you become very anxious and distressed. Read more about symptoms in our separate leaflet called Anxiety.
  • You may even have a panic attack. See the separate leaflet called Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder.
  • However, you will usually know that your fear and anxiety are excessive and unreasonable.

Social anxiety disorder can greatly affect your life. You may not do as well at school or work as you might have done, as you tend to avoid any group work, discussions, etc. You may find it hard to obtain, or keep, a job. This may be because you feel unable to cope with the social aspects needed for many jobs, such as meeting with people. You may become socially isolated and find it difficult to make friends.

It is one of the most common mental health conditions. As many as 1 in 10 adults have social anxiety disorder to some degree. It usually develops in the teenage years and is usually a lifelong problem unless treated. Just over twice as many women as men are affected.

The cause is probably a combination of bad experiences as a child and your genetic 'makeup' which makes you more prone to this condition. In one study about half of affected people said their phobia began after one memorable embarrassing experience. The other half said it had been present for 'as long as they could remember'.

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You must have three features to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder:

  • Your symptoms must not be the result of some other mental health condition (for example, a delusion).
  • You feel anxious entirely or mostly in social situations.
  • One of your main symptoms will be the avoidance of social situations.

As well as discussing your problems, your doctor or practice nurse may use a short questionnaire to obtain extra information on how severely you are affected.

Cognitive and behavioural therapies

See the separate leaflet called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for more details.

Self-help

There are several things that you can try to help yourself, before trying other treatments:

  • You can keep a diary. By recording what has happened, what you were doing and what you are thinking, you can start to better understand your anxiety.
  • You can try to break up a very stressful situation into smaller (more manageable) parts. Practise each part individually so you are more comfortable and then bring them together.
  • Don't make assumptions about what people are thinking, or why they are doing something. Concentrate on what they are saying.
  • You can try some breathing exercises to help manage your stress levels.

See also the separate leaflet called Stress Management.

Medicines for social anxiety

The usual medicines that may be used are:

In some cases a combination of treatments such as cognitive therapy and an antidepressant may work better than either treatment alone.

Support groups

Some people find that support and advice from a group of people going through the same issues that they are, can be helpful. There are several UK based support groups on the internet, such as Mind, YoungMinds and AnxietyUK.

Although alcohol may ease symptoms in the short term, don't be fooled that drinking helps to cure social anxiety. In the long run, it does not. Drinking alcohol to 'calm nerves' can lead to problem drinking and may make problems with social anxiety (and the depression that often accompanies it) worse in the long term. Consult a doctor if you are drinking alcohol (or taking street drugs) to ease social anxiety.

Not much is known about the natural progress of the condition. However, with treatment there is a good chance that symptoms can be greatly improved. Without treatment, social phobia can be associated with depression in later life.

Anxiety

Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

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Further reading and references

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