Beyond shyness: The face behind social anxiety

February 08, 2018 | by Laura Koehler, Psy.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Have you ever found yourself in the far corner of a crowded room? Do you avoid meeting new people? Does public speaking terrify you?

Some people are a little on the shy side. But for others, the thought of socializing or performing in front of others is too much to bear. When these feelings get in the way of everyday life, such as work, school or friendships, it could be social anxiety.

A common type of anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder affects 15 million adults in this country. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) defines social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, as an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.

It is much more severe than simply being shy. Social anxiety causes a person to feel anxious or fearful in certain or all social situations. The feelings of distress are overwhelming, and go way beyond nervousness. It can cause shortness of breath, headaches and heart palpitations.

According to the NIH, when having to perform in front of or be around others, people with social anxiety disorder tend to:

  • Blush, sweat, tremble, feel a rapid heart rate, or feel their “mind going blank”
  • Feel nauseous or sick to their stomach
  • Show a rigid body posture, make little eye contact, or speak with an overly soft voice
  • Find it scary and difficult to be with other people, especially those they don’t already know, and have a hard time talking to them even though they wish they could
  • Be very self-conscious in front of other people and feel embarrassed and awkward
  • Be very afraid that other people will judge them
  • Stay away from places where there are other people

The disorder is often selective. Some people may be comfortable in social situations but have an intense fear of giving a speech. Other people may become anxious during routine activities, such as starting a conversation with a stranger, participating in a class, or attending a social event.

The problem with social anxiety is that it can significantly impair aspects of daily life. It can be difficult to make and keep friends. It can prevent you from going to places or events, or reaching your full potential at work. It can hinder personal relationships.

When untreated, social anxiety disorder can also cause cause high blood pressure, heart problems and stomach issues. People with social anxiety disorder are at an increased risk for developing major depressive disorder and alcohol use disorders.

Treatment for social anxiety disorder can help you overcome your symptoms and get on with life. Treatment often includes individual therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. Group therapy and medication are treatment options, as well.

Despite the availability of effective treatments, most people with social anxiety disorder wait too long before getting help. And since the average age of onset for social anxiety disorder is during the teenage years, and the disorder can have a crippling effect on young people.

Affected children are more likely to develop depression by age 15 and substance abuse by age 16 or 17. Without treatment, it can cut short a lot of opportunitiues in school and later in life. Parents play an important role in identifying the disorder early, so they can get help for their child. Learn the warning signs of social phobia in children.

Find support for social anxiety disorder at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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