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a woman with anxiety feeling overwhelmed, holding her head in her hands

It’s Not Just Shyness: Understanding Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

If certain social settings give you sweaty palms, join the club. A general feeling of uneasiness or discomfort in settings like public speaking or presentations is an all-too-common struggle for many of us. In fact, the fear of public speaking specifically is more severe for many people than a fear of death!

Social anxiety disorder is a formal medical term and condition that describes a severe discomfort and anxiety from certain social situations, that can make getting through life feel like a constant stressor. While unpleasant, it’s quite common, affecting 7% of the population, and becoming more well-known and understood all the time.

What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?

If you’ve ever felt the nerves in your stomach or started sweating while having to give a presentation or speech, you might think that could fall under the umbrella of social anxiety disorder. This actual condition though, is far more severe and debilitating than a common case of nerves or even shyness, which it’s often confused with.

While it’s common to feel shy around people you don’t know or worried about giving a speech, for those suffering with social anxiety disorder, situations like parties, dating, eating in front of people, talking to new people in general and many more common occurrences can be too much to handle.

If left unaddressed, social anxiety disorder can cause a huge decrease in quality of life and can cause people to withdraw completely.

The following are all common symptoms of social anxiety disorder:

  • increased heart rate around others
  • Extreme fear of being judged
  • Extreme self-consciousness when entering a room or in front of other people at a party or restaurant
  • Nausea, sweating or trembling in social settings
  • Lightheadedness and dizziness
  • Struggling to catch breath
  • Social withdrawal

Social anxiety disorder is not to be confused with general shyness or introversion. It is also known as social phobia, which far more accurately captures the debilitating effect it can have on a person. It’s an intense fear of being judged or just watched by others, and every day social situations become incredibly daunting. It can prevent you from doing simple things like using public restrooms, checking out at the grocery store or meeting new people.

If you’ve been struggling with these fears and feelings for more than six months, you likely have social anxiety disorder.

Causes of Social Anxiety Disorder

Like many mental illnesses, we’re only starting to chip away at fully understanding the causes of social anxiety disorder.

It can tend to run in families, though it’s unclear why and may have more to do with learned behaviors and a “passed down” lack of social skills and emotional coping tools.

It’s common to see social anxiety start to rear its head in youth, around the age of 13, and often originates from instances of bullying or teasing among a kid’s peer group.

It’s also suspected that since social anxiety is rooted in a fear and a misreading of social cues leading to paranoia and anxiety, it could be linked to the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear.

Science is just starting to fully understand mental illness, so more research is needed to draw conclusions about what causes social anxiety disorder and what can be done to prevent it.

How It Differs from Other Anxiety Disorders

Many Americans suffer from social anxiety disorder, increasing the difficulty of situations like dating, job interviews, attending school, and social interaction with friends or romantic partners. It’s important to recognize social anxiety disorder as its own unique disorder versus other anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic attacks.

In terms of generalized anxiety disorder symptoms, a person can obsess and worry about a variety of topics and decisions, such as any every day decision, finances, health, their relationships, etc. While someone with social anxiety disorder also worries disproportionately over “threats” that are perhaps not really a true threat, the source of their anxiety is more focused on what others will think, how others will judge or perceive them, and ultimately, the concern of being rejected or outcasted.

People suffering from both will engage in “worst case scenario” thinking or catastrophizing, but those with social anxiety disorder are far more fixated on what others will think and the social aspect of the situation, versus just generally being anxious about an event.

Another difference between social anxiety disorder and general anxiety disorder is the age of onset, which is typically younger (in the teenage years) with social anxiety disorder, versus general anxiety disorder that can first occur in adulthood.

Treatment and Management Options

Despite the huge number of children and adults suffering from social anxiety disorder, sadly, many still let the stigma of mental illness prevent them from seeking treatment. Luckily, this is starting to shift as more people recognize mental illness and realize that treatment is nothing to be ashamed of and, in fact, can hugely improve quality of life.

There are several approaches one can take to treat social anxiety disorder, including:

  • Visiting one’s primary physician who will examine you for any possible underlying causes and refer you to specialists.
  • Visiting a therapist for repeated sessions to discuss your social anxiety disorder symptoms and underlying causes and help improve your negative thought patterns. Also, you should consider how to choose a therapist.
  • Group therapy sessions can also be very helpful.
  • Using medications such as anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications either short or long term, under the supervision of a doctor.
  • There are even many online services nowadays that can connect you with licensed therapists, such as Talk Space or Better Help. Sites also exist to help connect you to treatment facilities in your hometown.

With the proper treatment plan from a professional or team of professionals, like your doctor and licensed therapists, it may take time, but you can absolutely turn around your social anxiety disorder, proactively manage your anxiety and get your life back.

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