What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Few of us were ever born with the confidence and self-belief that comes naturally to some. Most kids are shy, timid, and insecure, but they gradually grow in confidence and regularly interact with other people as teens or adults.
Some people remain less confident, self-conscious and introverted as adults. They find it challenging to make a presentation to a small office team, let alone sway a crowd with an impassioned speech.
Social anxiety or social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is a disabling anxiety disorder common in both children and adults. Formerly known as social phobia, people with social anxiety have an intense and profound fear of ordinary, everyday situations. Their worry is so overwhelming that it results in abnormally high levels of emotional distress. People suffering from this disorder are not merely uneasy, reluctant or uncomfortable in public; they are mortified to the point of getting physically sick.
It’s completely normal to be afraid of making a fool of yourself in public, being mocked, teased or laughed at. This is what makes us all human. But it’s not normal to suffer both emotionally and socially because of it.
Social anxiety or social anxiety disorder is a debilitating form of mental illness. It requires the correct treatment to prevent it from destroying your sanity, career, friendships, and family relationships.
Doing Normal Things in Public Makes You Sick
If you sweat profusely, tremble with fear or have a surge of nausea when you drink your coffee in front of a workmate, you are not just self-conscious; you probably have a social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety dread simple social encounters like being introduced to a new person or speaking to someone in authority. They literally go sick with dizziness, heart palpitations, stomach discomfort and breathing difficulties among other unpleasant physical symptoms.
Because social anxiety disorder induces an overwhelming fear of being judged or ridiculed, it can make you feel inadequate, inferior, humiliated and embarrassed. If this happens repeatedly, it can lead to depression and low self-esteem.
Your Fear is Irrational, But You Are Helpless to Stop it
People with social anxiety disorder do realise that their anxiety is irrational. However, they cannot do anything about it. Because they are overwhelmed by an intense fear of simple social interactions, and take active steps to avoid doing things in public for fear of triggering their anxiety. Eating, speaking, walking in front of others, or meeting new people becomes taboo; something to be avoided at all costs. You may also worry a lot about these ordinary experiences for days or weeks in advance.
Furthermore, if you cannot avoid social situations that trigger anxiety, you may suffer an anxiety or panic attack. As a result, your avoidance behaviour may be so drastic that you withdraw entirely from normal interactions with family, friends, and workmates. Ultimately, this results in negative thoughts, fear of criticism, depression, and poor social skills. This can lead to failed marriages, ruined careers, failure in school and social reclusion.
Triggers of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety may be specific or generalised. People with specific social anxiety will have an irrational fear of one particular social activity, such as public speaking or meeting new people. Generalised social anxiety is more common and typically involves a fear of multiple forms of social interactions or situations.
Social anxiety is usually triggered by the following:
- Speaking with or being around authority figures
- Eating in front of other people
- Making a speech
- Walking in front of people
- Being in a crowd
- Being introduced to new people
- Speaking on the phone
- Striking up a conversation with strangers
- Being the centre of attention
- Talking in a group or crowd
- Asking questions
- Being teased
- Making eye contact
- Using public washrooms
- Going on a date
- Being watched while doing something
- Any social interaction involving strangers
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
Signs of social anxiety typically emerge in the early teens but may also occur in young children. Although the level of comfort in social situations varies from one person to another, individuals with social anxiety will exhibit the following unmistakable symptoms:
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Excessive sweating
- Shaking or trembling
- Choking sensation
- Breathing difficulty
- Pounding heart
- Abdominal discomfort
- Inability to speak (tongue-tied)
- Muscle tension
Psychological and Behavioral Symptoms:
- Intense anxiety in social situations
- Failure to function properly at work or school
- Excessive fear days or weeks before a social event
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fear of social situations that may lead to judgement or ridicule
- Overly sensitive to criticism
- Fear of offending others
- Staying away from school or work
- Taking alcohol before a social event or activity (Dutch courage)
- Fear that others will notice your anxiety
- Sitting at the back of the room to avoid being noticed
- Blending into a crowd to avoid being the centre of attention
- Expecting the worst possible consequences after a negative occurrence in a social event
- Taking time after an event to critically analyse your social interactions and finding fault in them
What Causes Social Anxiety or Social Anxiety Disorder?
Like most anxiety disorders, social anxiety disorder has the same root cause. Read; What Causes Anxiety here. However, social anxiety is more likely to occur in individuals with the following risk factors:
- A family history of anxiety: as the result of either genetics but more often as the result of children learning socially anxious behaviour from their parents or other relatives
- Growing up in overprotective or controlling environments
- Previous negative or embarrassing experiences such as bullying, teasing, humiliation, rejection or constant mocking.
- History of family conflict, abuse or trauma
- Personality trait: Children with a timid, withdrawn or shy temperament are more likely to develop social anxiety
- Exposure to a new and demanding environment: People in a new job or giving a speech for the first time may develop social anxiety symptoms due to the excessive stress of the situation
- People with disfigurement or appearances that draw attention such as stammering, or physical disability may experience increased self-consciousness, which can trigger anxiety
You Can Overcome Social Anxiety Disorder
People with social anxiety tend to think that they are born that way and that there is nothing they can do about it. Nothing is further from the truth. Some children or adults are not as socially savvy or confident as others. Despite this, being shy should never cause physical and emotional distress during social interactions. Like other anxiety disorders, social anxiety is a LEARNED behaviour that YOU CAN UNLEARN.
Without therapy, a social anxiety disorder can complicate your lifestyle and hinder you from enjoying everyday life. Sustaining your career and relationships with family and friends may become impossible if you do not get the correct treatment.
If normal social interactions or situations cause immense fear and negatively impacts your relationships or work, then it’s time to seek help. Social anxiety or social anxiety disorder can be overcome with the right treatment, allowing you to be confident, assertive and self-assured.