Understanding Social Anxiety Disorder Symptoms And What Causes Them

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 03/16/2023

People may experience anxiety in social situations, such as when meeting someone new or before giving a speech. It is the kind of anxiety that makes you feel nervous, like having butterflies in your stomach. Such feelings are normal. Social anxiety, on the other hand, can make someone feel extremely uncomfortable around others. Also known as social phobia, it disrupts how people live their lives while being fearful about how others perceive them. Understanding symptoms associated with anxiety and social situations is crucial to improving social relations in different areas of your life.

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

People with this disorder struggle to communicate with others due to experiencing higher levels of anxiety. People may be shy and feel uncomfortable speaking or being around others in certain situations. A person may feel fear and anxiety that leads to avoiding people, places, and specific conditions to prevent judgment, embarrassment, or feeling self-conscious. People with this disorder experience a disruption in their lives and relationships with others. People could be outgoing, reserved, or present specific behavior that hides their anxieties.

A person may experience intense fear when being evaluated or watched by others. Such anxiety is also experienced upon meeting someone they don't know or entering a situation with an unknown outcome. They could feel anxious or frightened with such feelings affecting conditions such as home, work, and school settings. An individual with this disorder may think others will see them in a bad light, but such fears may be irrational or not true. People with this disorder can learn to be comfortable in social settings and live enjoyable life.

What Are Social Anxiety Symptoms?

The disorder's symptoms vary from person to person, but they often stand out more than just normal nervousness. A person may avoid people and events while feeling anxiety and fear. Such feelings affect how daily tasks are done and, in many cases, prevent people from doing things that could enhance their livelihood. Symptoms may appear during the teen years, while others may notice them as a child or young adult. Behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms of social anxiety include:

  • Fear of being judged by others
  • Worries of self-humiliation or embarrassment
  • Fearful of talking to people you don't know
  • Fear others will notice your anxiety
  • Fear of being embarrassed by physical symptoms such as trembling, shaky voice, blushing, or sweating
  • Avoiding doing actions such as talking in front of others due to fear of embarrassment
  • Feeling anxious upon an activity, you feel fearful
  • Feel intense anxiety and fear during social situations
  • Ponder over how your interactions came off toward others after the conversation
  • Expect the worst-case scenario during social conditions considered negative

Symptoms in children may include clinging to their parents, crying, and temper tantrums when interacting with people they do not know. Physical signs a person may experience include muscle tension, sweating, nausea, upset stomach, blushing, dizziness, chest tightness, feeling as if your mind went blank, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath.

Another common sign of the disorder is avoiding situations that make you feel uncomfortable. Such settings may involve things that bring on anxieties and fears, such as interacting with new people, going out on a date, eating in public places, making eye contact, attending parties or gatherings, and starting conversations.

Symptoms may occur at different times and change over time. A person may experience stress and have symptoms flare up. People avoid situations, thinking it helps them feel better. However, the feeling is temporary and may lead to more challenges if signs are left unaddressed.

What Causes Social Anxiety?

Experiencing anxiety during social situations is normal. People may experience symptoms during specific conditions. Scientifically, the evidence behind possible causes may include environmental and biological factors. A person could inherit a trait from a family member, but more studies are needed to understand if genetics plays a role in the behavior. Some researchers believe brain structure could contribute to symptoms related to fear.

It is possible a person could have an overactive area in the brain, creating a heightened response to fear and leading to more anxiety in social settings. A person could learn the behavior if they had an embarrassing or unpleasant situation in the past. A person may develop such behaviors if they had an overprotective parent or had a parent display anxiety in social situations.

Understanding what triggers social anxiety varies because a person may experience different symptoms in different situations. Sometimes a problem may trigger symptoms such as public speaking, talking to people of authority, being criticized, making phone calls, taking a test or exam, speaking at a meeting, or being teased.

What Happens When Left Untreated?

Having this kind of anxiety left untreated could make life challenging. It may interfere with getting work, home, and school tasks. Individuals find it difficult to enjoy life and have meaningful relationships with people. A person may develop low self-esteem, lack social skills, isolate themself, find it challenging to have social relationships, and be sensitive to criticism. People may talk about themselves negatively, abuse substances, and lack assertiveness. Sometimes it could lead to developing other mental health concerns such as major depressive disorder.

People may not realize they are at risk or have developed symptoms that should be addressed. Many who may ask do I have social anxiety may want to consider if they are experiencing symptoms and potential risk factors, including:

  • A family history of someone having the disorder, such as a parent or sibling.
  • If you had negative experiences as a child with rejection, teasing, bullying, or humiliation
  • You had adverse events happen early in life, such as abuse, trauma, or family conflict.
  • You had issues with your temper as a child or withdrew from social situations when feeling timid, shy, or restrained.
  • Experience increased or new demand for social interaction, such as giving a speech or presentation.
  • Have something that brings attention, such as a physical medical condition or stuttering, leaving you feeling more self-conscious.

How Symptoms of Social Anxiety are Treated

Treatment for symptoms may include a combination of therapy and self-help techniques. The most common therapy option is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. Through these professional treatment sessions, individuals work with a therapist to challenge thoughts and feelings that bring intense fear and anxiety. You learn why and how these thoughts affect your behaviors and learn ways to change how you approach social situations to feel better.

CBT helps you learn how to relax through breathing exercises to help calm anxious thoughts. Your negative thoughts are replaced with balanced, positive reviews. You will learn systematic approaches to facing social settings. You may practice role-playing in group sessions to build social skills through mock interviews and to act.

Along with therapy, some use medication to help manage their symptoms. Their effectiveness is more likely when combined with therapy and self-help methods. Drugs are used to relieve anxiety symptoms such as sweating and shaky hands. Some with depression symptoms find antidepressants useful, especially if their symptoms are severe or make completing tasks challenging.

Self-Help and Prevention

A person with this disorder can practice methods to help them cope. A standard method includes challenging negative thoughts. Such thoughts contribute to the anxiety behind your fears. Such opinions may consist of thinking others will see you as a fool, thinking you do not have anything worthy to say, or assuming you will humiliate yourself. When you catch yourself in a negative thought about yourself, challenge it by analyzing it and asking questions. You may feel scared to do this, but you may also understand why you think this way to help lessen how it affects your life.

Taking the attention off yourself can help. People may assume others are looking at them or expecting them to do something foolish when that is false. Focusing on what is happening around you may reduce your anxiety. Try to make a genuine connection when you are around people. Usually, stress is not as noticeable to others as you think. Sometimes, people around you are just as nervous and may not display it. They may not believe negatively about you as a result. Listen to what others are saying and focus on being in the present. Do not worry about trying to be perfect. 

Practice breathing techniques to control your breathing. There are many ways to do this, and you can do a few reps before engaging with others. Keep your back and shoulders straight, and slowly inhale and exhale for several seconds between breaths. Consider ways to face your fears. Start small and work your way up. Be patient, as it takes time to implement strategies and see progress. Learn other ways to maintain calmness.

If you have anxiety problems, do not wait to seek help. Keep a journal to document situations that cause fear and anxiety—note which methods work for situations that help you be comfortable around others. Limit stress by prioritizing your energy and time by doing things you enjoy most. Avoid unhealthy habits that add to the tension and seek ways to improve your lifestyle to keep stress at bay.