Social Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia Explained

Social Anxiety Disorder, which is commonly referred to as social phobia, is an intense fear of being judged and embarrassed by others. The fear is so strong that it can get in the way of the normal tasks of daily living, such as going to work or school. Feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness are normal. Approximately 7% of people in the United States struggle with Social Anxiety Disorder in any given year. Everyone has felt anxious or embarrassed at some point in their life. For most people, speaking in public or meeting new people can be anxiety-provoking. The difference is that people with Social Anxiety Disorder worry about these things sometimes weeks before they occur.

Typically, individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder fear doing different things in front of others or with others. People vary widely in what triggers their anxiety, with common triggers including public speaking, dating, being in large groups of people, being assertive, and conversing with new people. Despite knowing that their fear is out of proportion, most people with Social Anxiety Disorder they have difficulty controlling it nonetheless. Oftentimes they avoid public situations where they might have to do something they think will humiliate them. Sometimes this is limited to a few situations, whereas other people with more problematic social anxiety try to avoid all social situations.

The cognitive behavioral model of social anxiety involves the interplay of thoughts feelings (aka physiological reactions) and behaviors. For instance, if you walk into a party and immediately notice your heart speed up, feel your muscles tense, or have a rush of warmth course through your face, these are the feeling component. If this reaction triggers thoughts of “People will see I’m nervous” or “I won’t know what to say," or even “They must think I’m stupid,” that is the cognitive component. These cognitive worries will likely trigger more of the physiological response of anxiety, causing more worries, in a kind of feedback loop. As for behavior, it includes anything you do. Usually when we talk about behavior in social anxiety, we refer to avoidance. If for instance you go to the party and avoid talking to anyone, you never have the experience of being with others, and you are unable to test whether you will actually embarrass yourself. By not testing out these beliefs, you never gain any evidence that they are untrue, thus reinforcing the thoughts that cause you anxiety. In this way, thoughts, feelings, and behavior can snowball, resulting in a pattern of social anxiety and social avoidance.