Being shy in new social situations or when meeting strangers isn’t uncommon. Novel circumstances can be anxiety-provoking for many of us, especially when we perceive that a lot is at stake, like meeting your partner’s family for the first time, or giving a presentation at school or work.
But if you experience what is known as social anxiety disorder, the pressure you feel in social situations is overwhelming. As a result, avoiding social contact is desirable in order to sidestep the stress of making eye contact, participating in small talk, etc. Too often, however, social avoidance starts to affect other aspects of your life thus impacting overall function.
Social anxiety disorder is sometimes referred to as social phobia and it is characterized by extreme discomfort when in a crowd of people. Individuals who experience this issue suffer from anxiety that extends far beyond simple shyness. This condition is one of five major anxiety disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (2014), which professionals use to assess and diagnosis mental health disorders.
Here are some of the more common situations associated with the disorder:
- Eating in front of other people
- Speaking to strangers
- Talking in public
- Having to make eye contact
- Using a public restroom
- Beginning conversations
- Attending parties
- Going to school or work
Socially anxious people have varying reasons for wanting to avoid certain situations although in general there are specific fears associated with the disorder. These worries include:
- Being the unwanted center of attention
- Being judged by others
- Being introduced to other people
- Not knowing what to say
- Being watched while doing something
- Having to speak up in a public situation
- Becoming embarrassed and subsequently shaking, blushing or sweating
- Unintentionally offending someone
Most experts agree that there is not a solitary cause that prompts this condition. On the one hand, your DNA likely plays a part because statistics show that risk is increased when an individual has a family member with the disorder. Experts have also shown that the part of the brain linked to fear response, called the amygdala, is overactive in people with social phobia. Despite realizing that their anxiety is not factually grounded, these fears are chronic and do not disappear of their own accord, or by wishing or willing them away.
According to researchers, feeling an overwhelming fear in social situations may be connected to a history of teasing, abuse or bullying. Studies show that children with authoritarian or controlling caretakers, as well as shy children, are at increased risk of experiencing social anxiety as adults.
Research also shows that many people with a social anxiety disorder also have few personal relationships, family difficulties, problems with acquiring and keeping jobs and high rates of alcoholism and substance abuse problems.
How do you know if you have a social anxiety disorder? If you think that a fear of social situations is interfering with your overall routine or function, it’s important to talk to a medical professional about this. In the meantime, here is a list of symptoms commonly associated with social phobia:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Stomach problems
If any of these symptoms negatively impact your ability to endure social events, it’s entirely understandable that you would want to avoid them at all costs. However, avoiding social situations can adversely impact your interpersonal relationships and further exacerbate low self-esteem, depression and negative thoughts.
Social anxiety is often mistaken for panic disorder, which is another reason why it is important to see a professional who can accurately diagnose your condition. Panic attacks and social anxiety disorder are two separate conditions, and if you think you may be experiencing either, a qualified medical professional will be able to help and advise you.
Individuals who experience social anxiety do not experience panic attacks which are typically characterized by an acute, unspecified dread or fear that one is having a potentially life-threatening medical problem. Instead, a person experiencing social anxiety is cognizant of the social aspect of their terror and typically does not seek treatment at a hospital or emergency room as is often the case with panic attacks.
If you experience a social anxiety disorder, the good news is that you do not need to suffer alone or in silence—social phobia can be successfully treated.
The prognosis for those who participate in and complete psychotherapeutic treatment is very good. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, individuals continued to report progress after such treatment. Studies also show that the repetition and reinforcement of rational strategies and concepts are crucial to mediating levels of social anxiety on a continuing basis.
In other words, people can manage and overcome social anxiety if they seek the proper treatment and practice what is learned in therapy on a regular and consistent basis.
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