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People with social anxiety disorder (or social phobia) are extremely anxious about what they will say or do in front of other people. This includes public speaking and day-to-day social situations. But it is more than just being shy or nervous before public speaking. The fear can begin weeks or months before an event. It can cause a fast heartbeat and make it hard to focus.
Some people fear only one or a few types of social situations. For other people, many situations cause stress. This problem affects your daily life. You may be so stressed or afraid that you avoid public situations, including missing work and school.
Doctors don't know what causes social anxiety disorder. They think it may run in families. But they are not sure if it's because of genetics or a response to a traumatic situation.
Social anxiety disorder causes both emotional and physical symptoms:
To diagnose social anxiety disorder, your doctor will examine you and ask about your symptoms. He or she may ask other questions to see how you are doing emotionally. This is called a mental health assessment.
Your doctor may also do blood or urine tests to rule out other conditions, such as thyroid problems that can cause similar symptoms.
Treatment of social anxiety disorder includes counseling and sometimes medicine, such as antidepressants. Whether you need medicine depends on how much the problem affects your daily life. If you already feel anxious around other people, it may be hard to ask for help. But treatment for social anxiety disorder works for many people.
Some people with social anxiety disorder turn to alcohol or drugs to help them relax. This can lead to addiction problems. They may also have depression. It is important to treat these issues too.
Learning about social anxiety disorder:
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Social anxiety disorder causes unreasonable, debilitating fear of being judged or publicly humiliated. You may avoid or severely limit encounters with other people—which can keep you from daily activities. You may develop physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, or tightness in your chest when faced with a feared social situation.
When you have social anxiety disorder, common social situations—such as eating in public, writing in front of other people, using a public restroom, or speaking in front of others—can cause overwhelming fear and anxiety.
You may be more afraid of people noticing your anxiety than of the actual feared situation. A vicious cycle can emerge of avoiding or worrying about the social event (such as speaking in public) because you are afraid others will see you as weak, anxious, or foolish—this, in turn, leads to more anxiety. This may lead to avoiding or limiting contact with other people.
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder may differ in adults and children. Adults and teenagers with social anxiety disorder usually recognize their fears of being publicly humiliated are unreasonable or excessive. But children who have this disorder may not.
Expressions of anxiety in adults or adolescents include:1
Expressions of anxiety in children include:1
People with social anxiety disorder often underachieve at work or at school to avoid the attention of a promotion or to avoid being forced to participate in a group. They tend to have few friendships and have trouble dating or developing relationships. In prolonged or severe cases, many people develop other psychological conditions (such as depression or substance abuse).
Social anxiety disorder is among several types of phobias that many people experience, such as agoraphobia or a specific phobia (fearing an object, like a spider, or a frightening situation, such as being stuck in an elevator).
Social anxiety disorder is diagnosed based on your medical history, physical exam, and sometimes a mental health assessment, which is an evaluation of psychological symptoms.
Blood or urine tests may also be done to rule out other medical conditions that can cause similar symptoms (such as hyperthyroidism).
Treatment for social anxiety disorder involves psychological counseling and sometimes medicines (such as antidepressants) to reduce related anxiety and depression.
A combination of medicines and professional counseling may be effective for long-term treatment for people who have generalized anxiety and fear over many social situations.2 For those who fear only one or a few social situations (such as public speaking or eating in front of others), professional counseling to overcome the fear may be all that is needed.
Unfortunately, many people don't seek treatment for anxiety disorders. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But getting treatment is important.
If you need help deciding whether to see your doctor, see some reasons why people don't get help and how to overcome them.
Initial treatment of social anxiety disorder is based on how bad your emotional and physical symptoms are and how able you are to function in daily activities. People who have social anxiety disorder often have depression also. They may also have alcohol or substance abuse problems. Your doctor may ask you certain questions to see whether you might be drinking too much or abusing drugs.
Social anxiety disorder often goes undetected for years before treatment is sought. By that time, you may have developed behaviors that accommodate the fears. These habits or behaviors must be overcome to successfully manage social anxiety disorder.
First, your doctor must determine whether you are generally anxious about all social encounters or whether a specific situation triggers anxiety.
Treatment with a combination of medicines and professional counseling is often effective for generalized social anxiety disorder (fear of most public interaction). Some people need treatment throughout their lives, while others may recover completely after a period of treatment with counseling and medicines
It is possible to overcome the fears linked with social anxiety disorder. Working through fears with a specific type of therapy—cognitive-behavioral therapy that includes exposure therapy—may be the best approach for treating your anxiety. It is important to continue professional counseling even if you are taking medicines to reduce anxiety.
Types of counseling most often used to treat social anxiety disorder include:
Medicines often used for chronic, severe, or generalized social anxiety disorder include:
Ongoing treatment of social anxiety disorder usually includes continuing psychological counseling and regular checkups to monitor any medicines you may be taking. If professional counseling alone has not reduced your anxiety symptoms, medicines may be added to your treatment.
If your anxiety is triggered by many social situations (generalized), you may need continuous and prolonged treatment with a combination of counseling and medicines. During this time, your doctor will need to monitor your medicines. If one medicine doesn't work for you, you and your doctor may decide you should try another.
With social anxiety disorder, it is possible to progress from debilitating fear of one social situation to having anxiety about all social encounters (generalized). If this occurs, additional treatment is needed that usually includes adding medicines and increasing the amount of professional counseling you receive.
You may also feel more anxious when you start professional counseling. This is because you are thinking about the situations that cause you fear and anxiety. After the situations have been identified, the fears can be addressed through counseling—especially cognitive-behavioral therapy which includes exposure therapy—gradually exposing you to your fear.
If you are taking medicines to treat social anxiety disorder, you will need regular checkups to monitor the medicines (such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and their potential side effects. The medicines may cause bothersome side effects that may make your anxiety worse at first. These side effects may get better over time. But if they do not, you may need to take a different medicine.
If social anxiety disorder is left untreated or improperly treated, it can cause debilitating distress that interferes with daily activities. Physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, blushing, shortness of breath, and dizziness can occur and need to be assessed.
Other psychological conditions (such as depression or substance abuse) may accompany social anxiety disorder, and these conditions need more treatment. If left untreated, the combination of social anxiety disorder and another psychological condition (such as depression) can increase the risk of attempted suicide.4
While counseling and medicines are the most effective treatments for social anxiety disorder, you may wish to reduce your anxiety level at home by practicing a healthy lifestyle.
If you drink alcohol or use drugs in an attempt to gain confidence to face feared social situations, it is possible to develop substance abuse problems in addition to social anxiety disorder.
For more information, see:
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) works to improve the lives of people who have anxiety disorders. Members of the association are not only people who have or are interested in anxiety disorders but also health professionals who do research and treat people who have anxiety disorders.
This online resource is provided by the American Psychiatric Association for anyone seeking mental health information. It includes information on many common mental health concerns, including warning signs of mental disorders, treatment options, and preventive measures.
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association) is a nonprofit agency devoted to helping people of all ages live mentally healthier lives. Its website has information about mental health conditions. It also addresses issues such as grief, stress, bullying, and more. It includes a confidential depression screening test for anyone who would like to take it. The short test may help you decide whether your symptoms are related to depression.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides information to help people better understand mental health, mental disorders, and behavioral problems. NIMH does not provide referrals to mental health professionals or treatment for mental health problems.
CitationsAmerican Psychiatric Association (2000). Anxiety disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text rev., pp. 450–456. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Hollander E, Simeon D (2008). Social phobia (Social anxiety disorder). In RE Hales et al., eds., American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 536–546. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.Wagstaff AJ, et al. (2002). Spotlight on paroxetine in psychiatric disorders in adults. Drugs, 62(4): 655–703.Schneier FR (2006). Social anxiety disorder. New England Journal of Medicine, 355(10): 1029–1036.U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/default.aspx.Other Works ConsultedIacoviello BM, Mathew SJ (2010). Anxiety disorder. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 13, chap. 1. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.Merikangas Kr, Kalaydjian AE (2009). Epidemiology of anxiety disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1856–1864. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.Zal HM (2003). Social phobia: Treatment issues. Psychiatric Times, 20(6): 80–83.
Last Revised: July 11, 2011
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Lisa S. Weinstock, MD - Psychiatry
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