Nearly all of us experience shyness at least occasionally in our day-to-day lives. We may feel uncomfortable around new people or nervous right before giving a speech, but for the most part, we are able to muscle through the feelings and carry on with our day. However, for those of us living with social anxiety, the feelings are much more pervasive and persistent. Interacting with an unfamiliar face brings on sweating, shaking, and shortness of breath while the daunting task of giving a speech may plague the mind for weeks or months beforehand. The feelings transcend shyness and cause significant impairment or distress in our social, occupational, and academic facets of life.
What is Social Anxiety?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), social anxiety is defined as an intense fear of social situations in which embarrassment can occur (e.g., dating, meeting new people, etc.) or there is a risk of being negatively scrutinized by others (e.g., being perceived as weak-minded, unintelligent, lazy, etc). Thus, social anxiety often involves a severe apprehensiveness about one’s behavior, status, and role in society.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
Symptoms of social anxiety are pervasive and persistent and can manifest physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. They can include:
- Fear and avoidance of situations or places in which you may be judged or humiliated
- Anticipating the worst-case scenario during social situations
- Fear of others noticing your anxiousness
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Shaking or Trembling
What Causes Social Anxiety?
The research pertaining to social anxiety is vast and encompasses perspectives from psychology, neuroscience, biology, and sociology, among others. While many studies spanning several decades suggest a combination of genetics and environmental influences, the exact causes of social anxiety have yet to be pinpointed. Possible causes include:
- Genetics: Social anxiety tends to run in families, though it is not yet entirely clear how much of this is due to learned behavior and how much is due to genetics.
- Environment: Social anxiety may be a learned behavior that develops in children of overprotective parents or parents that have experienced social anxiety themselves.
- Social experiences: Some individuals may develop social anxiety after experiencing a humiliating or traumatic incident such as bullying, rejection, and other forms of ridicule.
- Culture: Some individuals may be at an increased risk of social anxiety depending on their culture’s particular attitudes (e.g., contemporary American culture often emphasizes the importance of other people’s opinions and perfectionism).
Tips and Treatment for Social Anxiety
Social anxiety can be extremely debilitating in our day-to-day lives. Fortunately, there are several ways to help us overcome aspects of our social anxiety. They can include:
- Challenge negative thoughts: By challenging our negative thoughts, we essentially reframe our negative self-talk to develop a more positive mindset. For example, let’s say we fear the gaze of others when we walk into a crowded room. Our negative self-talk might be that “everyone will stare at me as I walk into the room.” We can challenge this with contrary evidence (i.e., “People don’t always look up at me whenever I enter a room”) and a realistic outcome (i.e., “It is likely that a few people will glance at me as I walk into the room and then go back to whatever is in front of them”).
- Exercise: Studies suggest that physical activity and exercise can improve self-esteem and decrease symptoms of anxiety.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, cognitive behavioral therapy is a well-studied type of psychotherapy that can treat social anxiety by teaching different methods of thought, behavior, and reactions to social situations.
Interested in treatment for social anxiety? Our therapists at Pacific CBT are highly trained to help you work through your social anxiety. Contact us today to schedule a free, 15-minute video consultation.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Apa Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://dictionary.apa.org/social-anxiety
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Social anxiety disorder: More than just shyness. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness
About the Author: Christian Wertman currently works as a behavior therapist in the field of applied behavior analysis. Christian received his Bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Francisco State University and has aspirations for a career in clinical psychology.