Social Anxiety in Adults


What’s the difference between shyness and social anxiety?

Man in bright clothes with a paper bag on headTo set things straight, social anxiety is very different to shyness. Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is when individuals internally obsess over and fear what others are thinking about them – usually cased in terms of negative thoughts, evaluations and judgements made of them. These fears are heavily rooted in their own insecurities and underlying feelings of unworthiness. Individuals with the disorder strongly believe that they have particular inadequacies (that are usually highly unrealistic and undetectable to others) that they desperately attempt to prevent revealing, and are typically associated with feelings of intense shame and embarrassment. 

Interestingly, (and somewhat contradictory) many individuals with social anxiety, automatically assume when confronted with their feared social situation, that they become the focus of other peoples thoughts who “must be” judging them based upon their insecurities. Most of the time however, this is NOT TRUE and the flaws they feel they have are often unrealistic and undetectable to others. 


What are the symptoms?

The disorder can develop as a generalised anxiety around typical social situations involving interactions with others, or it can manifest as a specific type of fear based around performing actions in front of others: both of which involve fearing the focus of attention on themselves. These thoughts lead them to avoid situations where they could potentially embarrass themselves, be humiliated, criticized, or put on the spot. The difference between shyness and social anxiety is that individuals with social anxiety experience excessive amounts of distress, catastrophizing thoughts, display avoidance behaviours and fear of being confronted with various social situations. In addition to these differences, developing social phobia usually interferes with an individual’s ability to carry out their daily activities (including work), engage in social events, and form and maintain relationships – all of which can severely impact their quality of life.

Some common examples of feared social situations include:

  • Talking in groups
  • Eating, writing, or exercising in front of people
  • Using a public bathroom
  • Having to make conversation with others
  • Attending social gatherings or parties
  • Making a speech
  • Having to speak to someone of higher authority
  • Dating

It is important to remember that each individual is different, and may experience a range of other fears of social situations than these mentioned above. The fears associated with social anxiety are usually rooted in negative evaluations the individual feels other people may criticize them on – largely based around not meeting the “standards” of others: including being un-liked, unaccepted or unwanted.

 Some common examples of social fears include:

  • Having bad breath
  • Not being good looking enough
  • Sweating too much
  • Not saying the “right” things or saying the “wrong” things
  • Offending someone
  • Not performing well enough
  • Making a “fool” of themselves

 The phrase Wall of Shame on a cork notice board


 Often individuals who experience social anxiety exhibit similar symptoms to those of a panic disorder: both experience panic attacks as their response to situations involving an overwhelming sense of fear. The difference between the two, is that panic disorders are usually characterised by fear of dying or fainting – they usually do not care what others are thinking. Moreover, individuals with social anxiety disorder experience more observable physical symptoms, such as nervous trembling, sweating, blushing, nausea, or voice cracking or stuttering. These symptoms are exactly what they attempt to hide –only functioning to embarrass them further and reinforce their own negative thoughts about what others must be thinking of them. This usually leads to a heightened state of self- consciousness and hyper-vigilance in social settings.  

Common & observable symptoms of social anxiety:

  • Nervous trembling
  • Nervous sweating
  • Blushing
  • Nausea or diarrhoea
  • Voice cracking or stuttering


GuiltyEven though individuals with social anxiety may recognise that their fears about what others think of them are actually irrational, they may still be unable to change the way their thoughts make them feel. This is why it is essential for individuals to seek help from a psychologist specialising in the area, who understands the multifaceted elements of the disorder itself. The good news is, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), has been proven a very successful psychotherapeutic treatment to help individuals overcome the disorder. The process involves “re-wiring” the individual’s irrational thought processes with more realistic, positive beliefs: working to restructure their thoughts about themselves (cognitions), and correspondingly their behaviours (reactions).

How common is it?

It is only natural for people to feel a bit nervous when confronted with new situations, meeting new faces, or speaking in front of large crowds, but the disorder can be identified when individuals experience relentless distress and anxiety over typical social situations like these, to the point where it takes over and limits aspects of their life. Social anxiety is more common than most people would think, studies suggest that around 5% of the Australian population alone experience social anxiety each year, with as many as 1 in 10 of us experiencing it at some point throughout our life. Keep in mind these figures are modestly based upon reported cases only – meaning there is probably a much larger number who have not sought help.

What causes social anxiety?

There are a range of environmental factors that can contribute to the onset of social anxiety, some of the common triggers include:

  • Temperament: having a shy/ introverted personality type
  • Having experienced past trauma in a social setting: being bullied, rejected, or extremely embarrassed in the past in front of others- usually occurring during childhood or adolescence
  • Exposure: having a family history of social anxiety or other anxiety disorders

When should I get help?

Any individual who can identify with the symptoms outlined earlier, or experiences intense feelings of distress and avoidance when confronted with social situations, should seek help from a professional psychologist specialising in the area.

If you would like to know more about social phobia in adults or in children, the founder and director of Anxiety House, Dr. Emily O’Leary, will be hosting an information evening on the March 31, 2015. In addition to receiving information on social anxiety, causes and treatments, you’ll also have the opportunity to speak one-on-one with our staff and get answers to any questions you may have.

For more information about the night and to secure your spot, give us a call on (07) 3041 1164, or RSVP by email



Dr Emily O’Leary – Clinical PsychologistEmily

Clinical Director of Anxiety House and OCD Clinic since 2010

  • Ten years’ experience with clients with OCD and anxiety
  • Clinical supervisor and STAP trained
  • Worked in public and private sectors for many years
  • Worked in acute inpatient and outpatients units
  • Regular speaker on radio and social media
  • Researcher and presenter at international conferences


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