If you or a loved one struggles with social situations, you might wonder about the cause of the problem. Are you shy, reserved, or introverted? Or, could you have a mental health condition known as social anxiety disorder?
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder is a form of anxiety that is also referred to as a social phobia. It comes with specific symptoms that can result in a mental health professional providing a legitimate diagnosis and treatment. This is a disorder that leads to people feeling anxiety around other people and avoiding social situations.
What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
This mental health disorder generally presents itself during the teenage years, although it’s possible for it to begin during childhood. However, it’s not entirely understood why this problem presents itself. Nonetheless, contributors have been associated with its onset.
Biological factors may play a role. One potential contributor is an overactive amygdala in the brain, which can increase anxiety, including social anxiety. Also, an imbalance of the brain chemical serotonin has been shown to have a connection.
External factors may also contribute. One potential contributor is learning social anxiety from parents or other influences. Difficult family or social dynamics may contribute, such as critical or controlling parents, family abuse, or bullying.
Further, experiencing difficult social encounters may contribute to social anxiety in response to later social situations. So, if you found social situations difficult to handle before, you may become anxious about future ones. There could be other factors as well, such as an introverted temperament or a trait that people tend to focus on and that makes the person self-conscious.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder
How do you distinguish social anxiety disorder from being shy or uncomfortable in social settings? The symptoms of social anxiety disorder help to set it apart and allow mental health professionals to provide a diagnosis when it’s appropriate. Symptoms include:
- Physical symptoms, such as trouble communicating, a quickened heart rate, blushing, sweating, and muscle tension
- Emotional/cognitive symptoms, such as worrying about being judged or embarrassed, analyzing social encounters after they happen, and thinking negatively about events far before they happen
- Behavioral symptoms, such as having difficulty dating, eating publically, starting conversations or using a public bathroom, as well as leaving or avoiding social situations
Rather than showing mild symptoms from time to time, social phobia interferes with a person’s life on an ongoing basis or causes a significant amount of distress. It’s likely that you know social situations do not warrant this level of fear and anxiety but find yourself incapable of managing it. The anxiety may happen in certain circumstances or all social situations, which could impact whether you are diagnosed with a generalized social anxiety disorder or a specific social anxiety disorder.
When determining whether you have this disorder, a mental health professional considers certain criteria regarding symptoms, their severity, and the length of time they’ve been affecting you.
For example, they consider whether a person is:
- Experiencing anxiety related to social encounters, including fear of judgment or scrutiny, that happens for at least six months
- Avoiding most social settings
- Feeling anxiety or panic regularly due to social situations
- Experiencing anxiety about a situation that is worse than the actual situation
If you meet a certain number of criteria like these during an evaluation, you may receive a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder.
How Is Social Anxiety Disorder Treated?
Treatment starts by having a health professional diagnose social anxiety disorder. This diagnosis is based on exhibiting the symptoms of the disorder, rather than simply experiencing a normal amount of shyness, discomfort, or nervousness in public.
Fortunately, this disorder is treatable. Here are treatment options:
Medication: Another common treatment is the use of medication. Options include anti-anxiety/antidepressant medications, such as benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), or beta-blockers.
Therapy: One way to treat social phobia is through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions. This is a form of therapy that focuses on changing thoughts and behaviors with the help of a trained therapist. In other words, you could learn to shift the way you think about social encounters and how you behave in relation to them.
Combination Treatment: A treatment plan may include the use of both therapy and medication together.
Support Techniques: In addition, lifestyle changes and self-help strategies may support other forms of treatment and help you manage social anxiety. There are a few different relaxation techniques that can help with anxiety, like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Alternatively, you can try to be more mindful of your responses to situations and challenge yourself to think in a more positive way.
For example, if you’re worried that someone will judge you at a party, remind yourself that it’s also possible that someone will be nice to you. Other ways to manage social anxiety include reading self-help books, taking care of your health, and getting support from others who also have social anxiety. You can also slowly expose yourself to social situations that you feel comfortable with, and focus on the progress you make.