What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting nearly 15 million adults in the U.S. alone.
This condition is characterized by an intense fear of social situations which generates a lot of emotional discomfort. People who struggle with social anxiety are constantly afraid that others are criticizing and judging.
As a result, socially anxious individuals resort to social withdrawal and isolation, in an attempt to escape the frustration, shame, and guilt that they experience whenever they have to interact with other people.
But feeling shy and uncomfortable in certain situations isn’t necessarily a sign of social anxiety. The level of discomfort that we experience in different social contexts varies depending on individual traits and life experiences.
While some people tend to have an outgoing personality, others are naturally inclined toward introversion.
The difference between being shy and being socially anxious can only be determined based on how we react to emotional discomfort.
In other words, social anxiety becomes a severe problem when everyday social interactions trigger excessive fear and a profound feeling of shame that invalidates the person and leads to avoidance behaviors.
Signs of Social Anxiety Disorder
Most of the symptoms that characterize this condition gravitate around the fear of humiliation and criticism, which trigger fear, shame, and guilt.
Some of the most common signs of social anxiety include:
- Excessive sweating and shaking
- Headaches and migraines
- Dry mouth
- Stomach pains
- Muscle tension
- Rapid breathing
- State of confusion
- Tendency to avoid eye contact
- Blushing of face
- Feelings of shame
- Lack of focus
- Fear of situations in which you can be analyzed or evaluated
- Fear of being around people you don’t know
- Fear of criticism, ridicule, and humiliation
- Desire to escape a given situation (avoidance behaviors)
- Constant self-doubt
- Negative thoughts (e.g., I don’t know what to say; They’re going to make fun of me)
If left unchecked, social anxiety can lead to more severe conditions like depression, panic disorder, or PTSD.
How is Social Anxiety Disorder Treated?
The two primary treatment options for social anxiety are psychotherapy and medication.
Since social anxiety can be a profoundly debilitating condition, experts recommend pharmacological treatments to stabilize the patient’s overall mood and make way for other therapeutic interventions.
To reduce the risk of side effects, your doctor may begin the treatment with a low dose of medication and then gradually increase to a full dose. This process can take from several weeks to several months.
Psychotherapy or counseling focuses primarily on alleviating the symptoms of social anxiety. In therapy, clients learn how to recognize and change negative thinking patterns and develop the skills they need to handle social situations.
One of the most popular therapeutic approaches for social anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This approach provides clients with a robust arsenal of techniques that enables them to cope with the situations they’re most afraid of.
But the most frequently used therapeutic strategy for social phobia is exposure therapy. That involves gradual exposure to anxiety-producing stimuli.
WHEN TO SEE A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL
Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.
If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.
And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.
Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:
- Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
- Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
- Encourage resilience and self-management
- Identify and change negative behaviors
- Identify and encourage positive behaviors
- Heal pain from past trauma
- Figure out goals and waypoints
- Build self-confidence
Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?
Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.
So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.
Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.
WHEN TO GET EMERGENCY HELP
Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:
- Make sure someone stays with that person.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.