Anxiety in Social Situations

social anxiety

Social phobia, or Social Anxiety, is the term used to refer to the persistent fear or discomfort experienced in situations involving social interactions or social performance, or in situations where there is the potential for scrutiny by others (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). The concern for those who experience social anxiety is that they will say or do something that will eventuate in humiliation or embarrassment for themselves. These concerns can become so consuming and so serious that social interactions are avoided or endured with intense discomfort. At times, some might find themselves turning to drinking, smoking, avoiding eye contact, speaking softly or providing short answers in an attempt to end an interaction prematurely, or even sitting in a corner alone to cope with the experience of anxiety.

Social anxiety can manifest in a variety of forms. Stereotypically, when we think of someone who experiences social anxiety, we think of someone who feels nervous speaking with unfamiliar people, particularly in large crowds. However, social anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways – it can occur for situations with familiar or unfamiliar people; in big or small groups. It is not uncommon to find someone who is socially anxious performing as a bass player in a band on stage, but struggling to speak up among a group of friends. It is also not surprising for someone to be the life of the party with their group of friends, but to seize up in front of an audience.

However the experience of social anxiety may be, when someone with social anxiety interacts in a social situation in which they feel anxious, they tend to be shy, quiet, and withdrawn. They may also show overt signs of anxiety like blushing or avoiding eye contact, and will probably experience uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety (e.g., heart racing, sweating, and difficulties concentrating).

Despite the difficulties interacting socially, people with social phobia crave the company of others, only avoiding them due to fears that they will be seen as boring, stupid, or unlikeable. However, due to their avoidance of social interactions, people who experience social anxiety can at times be mistakenly labelled as "arrogant" or “snobbish”.

It may come as a surprise to some to know that social anxiety is evolutionarily adaptive. Think about it this way: back when we lived in tribes, would it have been helpful for us to be concerned if we were liked and accepted by the members of our tribe? Or would we have been better off not being bothered about it? Chances are, if we did not bother about being liked or accepted, we would have probably said or did something upsetting to someone, which would have then potentially ostracized us from the group. Remember, back then being ostracised meant that you did not have the protection of the tribe against wild animals, and would have probably been a lion’s lunch. So some amount of social anxiety is actually helpful. Where is becomes unhelpful is when the anxiety interferes with our ability to interact with others and develop meaningful relationships, or negatively impact on our academic or occupational performance.

Social phobia is rarely the result of a single factor. As with all anxiety disorders, it is typically a combination of a variety of factors that leads to the development of social anxiety: genetics, neural circuitry, and the environment.

Abnormalities in a particular circuit in the brain called the “corticostriatal circuitry” (Stein & Stein, 2008) or a family history of social anxiety (e.g., having a parent who is socially anxious) can place one at a vulnerability to developing the disorder. Certain life events, like negative social experiences (e.g., being laughed at in front of a group of friends, telling a joke that no one thought was funny), or life stressors, can also trigger the onset of social phobia.

It is important to note that you are not likely to develop social anxiety simply because a parent was socially anxious or because you were teased in school. However, you are more likely to become socially anxious if, for instance, you had a socially anxious parent (genetics) who rarely let you go out with your friends (environment), and you were laughed at in front of the whole school (life event).

Research in the area has indicated that medications and psychological treatment, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is highly effective in treating and managing the symptoms of social phobia. Working with a psychologist, the key components of CBT for social phobia involve providing you with tools to understand and manage your experience of social anxiety. Some of these tools include relaxation training, and strategies to help you identify your triggers for social anxiety and learning and developing more adaptive interpretations of social situations. Treatment for social phobia also incorporates exposure to a variety of social situations with varying degrees of difficulty, to enable you to face your fears.

Author: Dr Daphne S Bryan DPsyc (Clin); BPsycSci (Hons)

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Dr. Daphne Bryan

Daphne is a doctoral qualified clinical psychologist, with a strong interest in working with adolescents and adults who experience anxiety disorders and phobias. She has worked with a broad range of presentations across a variety of public and private settings, incorporating a variety of evidence-based strategies from a variety of modalities, including Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Schema Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.