What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder/Social Phobia?

Social Anxiety Disorder can run in families, however, no one knows for sure why some people have it while others don't. Current research indicates there is not just one factor responsible for social anxiety disorder, and that more likely an interplay of three important factors are responsible:

Your Genes: There is significant evidence that supports the hypothesis that genes play a role in whether you will develop social anxiety disorder or not. One clue comes from studies that look at identical twins. Because identical twins share the same genes, and because the studies found if one twin had social anxiety the other twin was likely to have it too, researchers have concluded that genes play an important role. Another line of research has shown that social anxiety can be predicted in early infancy, before the environment has had a chance to influence learning. Here too, it is hypothesized that a strong genetic predisposition is responsible. However, scientists have not identified one gene that is responsible, and not every twin of someone with social anxiety goes on to develop it. This suggests that although genetics an important component, it is by no means the only one.

Your Family Environment: We learn a lot growing up in our families. Attitudes about ourselves, others, and the future are passed down from generation to generation through continual exposure to parents and other family members. If a child has an anxious parent, or a parent who frets over how others may perceive him, it would be natural for that child to come away with the belief that others are critical or worrisome. Or if a child grows up in an environment characterized by frequent criticism, it does not take a psychologist to predict that child will not think highly of himself, and will expect criticism from others. As with genes, family environment does not dictate the course of our lives. Many people who had abusive parents or parents with extreme anxiety go on to live lives free of excessive social anxiety. However, we know from decades of research that family environment has the potential to play a big role in the development of social anxiety.

Other Life Experiences: Other impactful experiences can also lead to social phobia symptoms. For instance, people who grow up with a speech impediment or birth defect often are more vigilant about what other people think about them. Also, bullying can make it more likely for people to expect harsh judgment or criticism from others. Additionally, experiences that have very little to do with others’ judgment can result in social anxiety. For instance, sometimes a first panic attack, if it is experienced around other people, can lead people to fear social situations.

Although it is easy to want to believe there is just one cause of social anxiety disorder, usually there is a complex interaction of factors at work. By better understanding the ways social phobia develops, scientists are creating more targeted treatments as well as prevention programs. Currently, the best treatment for social anxiety disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Click here to learn more about what CBT is and how it works.