Social phobia is a strong fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed. This fear can be so strong that it gets in the way of going to work or school or doing other everyday things.
Everyone has felt anxious or embarrassed at one time or another. For example, meeting new people or giving a public speech can make anyone nervous. But people with social phobia worry about these and other things for weeks before they happen.
People with social phobia are afraid of doing common things in front of other people. For example, they might be afraid to sign a check in front of a cashier at the grocery store, or they might be afraid to eat or drink in front of other people or use a public restroom. Most people who have social phobia know that they shouldn’t be as afraid as they are, but they can’t control their fear. Sometimes, they end up staying away from places or events where they think they might have to do something that will embarrass them. For some people, social phobia is a problem only in certain situations, while others have symptoms in almost any social situation.
Kids, teens, and adults can have this issue. Most of the time, it starts when a person is young. Like other anxiety-based problems, social phobia develops because of a combination of three factors:
- A person’s biological makeup. Social phobia could be partly due to the genes and temperament a person inherits. Inherited genetic traits from parents and other relatives can influence how the brain senses and regulates anxiety, shyness, nervousness, and stress reactions. Likewise, some people are born with a shy temperament and tend to be cautious and sensitive in new situations and prefer what’s familiar. Most people who develop social phobia have always had a shy temperament.
- Behaviors learned from role models (especially parents). A person’s naturally shy temperament can be influenced by what he or she learns from role models. If parents or others react by overprotecting a child who is shy, the child won’t have a chance to get used to new situations and new people. Over time, shyness can build into social phobia.
- Life events and experiences. If people born with a cautious nature have stressful experiences, it can make them even more cautious and shy. Feeling pressured to interact in ways they don’t feel ready for, being criticized or humiliated, or having other fears and worries can make it more likely for a shy or fearful person to develop social anxiety.
People who constantly receive critical or disapproving reactions may grow to expect that other will judge them negatively. Being teased or bullied will make people who are already shy likely to retreat into their shells even more. They’ll be scared of making a mistake or disappointing someone and will be more sensitive to criticism.
People with social phobia can learn to manage fear, develop confidence and coping skills, and stop avoiding things that make them anxious. But it’s not always easy. Overcoming this means getting up the courage it takes to go beyond what’s comfortable, little by little.
Social phobia is generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both.
Here’s who can support and guide people in overcoming social phobia:
- Therapists can help people recognize the physical sensations caused by fight-flight and teach them to interpret these sensations more accurately. Therapists can help people create a plan for facing social fears one by one, and help them build the skills and confidence to do it. This includes practicing new behaviors. Sometimes, but not always, medications that reduce anxiety are used as part of the treatment for social phobia.
- Family or friends are especially important for people who are dealing with social phobia. The right support from a few key people can help those with social phobia gather the courage to go outside their comfort zone and try something new.
Dealing with social phobia takes patience, courage to face fears and try new things, and the willingness to practice. It takes a commitment to go forward rather than back away when feeling shy.
If you, your loved one or child need help with a phobia, contact us for help.
Teen Social Phobia
It’s natural to feel self-conscious, nervous, or shy in front of others at times. Anyone can have a racing heart, sweaty palms, or fluttering stomach when trying out for chorus, asking someone on a first date, or giving a class presentation.
Most people manage to get through these moments when they need to. But for some, the anxiety that goes with feeling shy or self-conscious can be extreme. It can seem so unbearable that they might feel too nervous to give answers in class, be unable to make eye contact with classmates in the hallway, or avoid chatting with others at the lunch table.
When people feel so self-conscious and anxious that it prevents them from speaking up or socializing most of the time, it’s probably more than shyness. It may be an anxiety condition called a social phobia.
What Is Social Phobia?
Social phobia (also called social anxiety) is a type of anxiety problem. Extreme feelings of shyness and self-consciousness build into a powerful fear. As a result, a person feels uncomfortable participating in everyday social situations.
People with social phobia can usually interact easily with family and a few close friends. But meeting new people, talking in a group, or speaking in public can cause their extreme shyness to kick in.
With this type of fear, a person’s extreme shyness, self-consciousness, and fears of embarrassment get in the way of life. Instead of enjoying social activities, people with social phobia might dread them — and avoid some of them altogether.
The Fear Reaction
Like other phobias, social phobia is a fear reaction to something that isn’t actually dangerous — although the body and mind react as if the danger is real. This means that someone feels physical sensations of fear, like a faster heartbeat and breathing. These are part of the body’s fight–flight response. They’re caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that prepare the body to either fight or make a quick getaway.
This biological mechanism kicks in when we feel afraid. It’s a built-in nervous system response that alerts us to danger so we can protect ourselves. With social phobia, this response gets activated too frequently, too strongly, and in situations where it’s out of place. Because the physical sensations that go with the response are real — and sometimes quite strong — the danger seems real, too. So the person will react by freezing up and will feel unable to interact.
As the body experiences these physical sensations, the mind goes through emotions like feeling afraid or nervous.
People with social phobia tend to interpret these sensations and emotions in a way that leads them to avoid the situation (“Uh-oh, my heart’s pounding, this must be dangerous — I’d better not do it!”). Someone else might interpret the same physical sensations of nervousness a different way (“OK, that’s just my heart beating fast. It’s me getting nervous because it’s almost my turn to speak. It happens every time. No big deal.”).
People with social phobia can learn to manage fear, develop confidence and coping skills, and stop avoiding things that make them anxious. But it’s not always easy. Overcoming social phobia means getting up the courage it takes to go beyond what’s comfortable, little by little.
Here’s who can support and guide people in overcoming social phobia:
Therapists can help people recognize the physical sensations caused by fight–flight and teach them to interpret these sensations more accurately. Therapists can help people create a plan for facing social fears one by one, and help them build the skills and confidence to do it. This includes practicing new behaviors. Sometimes, but not always, medications that reduce anxiety are used as part of the treatment for social phobia.
Family or friends are especially important for people who are dealing with this type of fear. The right support from a few key people can help those with social phobia gather the courage to go outside their comfort zone and try something new.
Putdowns, lectures, criticisms, and demands to change don’t help — and just make a person feel bad. Having social phobia isn’t a person’s fault and isn’t something anyone chooses. Instead, friends and family can encourage people with social phobia to pick a small goal to aim for, remind them to go for it and be there when they might feel discouraged. Good friends and family are there to celebrate each small success along the way.