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Social Anxiety Disorder

Topic Overview

What is social anxiety disorder?

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.

What causes social anxiety disorder?

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.

What are the symptoms?

Social anxiety disorder causes both emotional and physical symptoms.

  • It can make you nervous, sad, or easily upset before or during a social event. You may worry a lot or be afraid that something bad will happen.
  • The anxiety can cause you to blush, sweat, and feel shaky. Your heart may beat faster than normal, and you may have a hard time focusing.

How is social anxiety disorder diagnosed?

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.

How is it treated?

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about social anxiety disorder:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

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Symptoms

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.

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).

Exams and Tests

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 Overview

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. 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.

How do I know if I have an anxiety disorder that needs treatment? (What is a PDF document?)

If you need help deciding whether to see your doctor, see some reasons why people don't get help and read about how to overcome them.

Initial and ongoing treatment

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

Counseling

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:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy , which helps you identify anxieties and the situations that provoke the anxiety. At first you may feel uncomfortable while addressing the feared situations, but it is an important part of your recovery. Several types of cognitive-behavioral therapy are used to treat social anxiety disorder, including:
    • Exposure therapy. You will be guided by a professional counselor to imagine you are facing the feared situation until you no longer fear it, such as eating in public. Next, you may go with your counselor to a public place and eat until, eventually, you can eat by yourself in public without fear.
    • Social skills training. This therapy helps you develop the skills you need in social situations through rehearsing and role-playing. Your anxiety is reduced as you become more comfortable with and prepared for the feared social situations.
    • Cognitive restructuring. This therapy helps you learn to identify and improve fearful thinking to help you better handle social situations.
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    • Symptom management skills. This therapy teaches you how to reduce stress by controlling your breathing and other physical responses to anxiety.
  • Supportive therapy. This can include:
    • Education about the disorder.
    • Family therapy, to support loved ones affected by your condition.
    • Group therapy or support groups, to seek support from others also diagnosed with the disorder.
Medicines

Medicines often used for chronic, severe, or generalized social anxiety disorder include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), to relieve anxiety. SSRIs are often the first type of medicine used to treat generalized social anxiety disorder.
  • Venlafaxine, a serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), to help relieve anxiety and depression.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), to relieve depression and anxiety. MAOIs have potentially serious side effects when they are taken with certain foods (such as some cheeses and red wine).
  • Benzodiazepines, to relieve anxiety. They are fast-acting. But they may be habit-forming and are not generally used in those who have substance abuse problems.
  • Beta-blockers, to reduce anxiety. Beta-blockers are sometimes used to treat physical symptoms of anxiety (such as tremors or rapid heart rate).

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.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

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.

Home Treatment

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:

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)
8730 Georgia Avenue
Suite 600
Silver Spring, MD  20910
Phone: (240) 485-1001
Fax: (240) 485-1035
Web Address: www.adaa.org
 

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.



Healthy Minds. Healthy Lives.American Psychiatric Association
1000
Wilson Boulevard
1825
Arlington, VA 22209
Phone: 1-888-35-PSYCH

Email: apa@psych.org
Web Address: www.healthyminds.org
 

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.



KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

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
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone: 1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642) referral service for help with depression

(703) 684-7722
Fax: (703) 684-5968
Web Address: www.mentalhealthamerica.net
 

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.



National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
6001 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Phone: 1-866-615-6464 toll-free
Phone: (301) 443-4513
Fax: (301) 443-4279
Web Address: www.nimh.nih.gov
 

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.



References

Citations

  1. 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 Consulted

  • American Psychiatric Association (2000). Anxiety disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text rev., pp. 429–484. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  • Gale CK, Millichamp J (2011). Generalised anxiety disorder, search date May 2011. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
  • Iacoviello 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.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Lisa S. Weinstock, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised June 13, 2013

Last Revised: June 13, 2013

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