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Social anxiety disorder occurs when a person experiences extreme anxiety in social situations. There are signs to indicate that somebody might have social anxiety disorder. There are also effective treatments available.

This can help if:

  • you feel anxious in social situations
  • you avoid social situations because they make you feel anxious
  • you worry you’ll embarrass yourself and that others will judge you.
Girl looking upset in a group of people

What is social anxiety disorder?

Feeling uncomfortable or nervous in social situations is something that everyone might experience at some time in their life. However, some people feel so much fear and anxiety that they avoid social situations altogether. When severe anxiety begins to affect your everyday social life (such as not participating in social events that you previously enjoyed), you may be suffering from social anxiety disorder.

For someone with social anxiety disorder, almost anything that involves social interaction is extremely stressful. Everyday activities, such as making small talk, eating or drinking in public, meeting people, or even going to school or work, all become overwhelming.

Signs of social anxiety disorder include:

  • feeling anxious in social situations (physical symptoms include racing heart, sweating, queasy stomach, dizziness, shortness of breath)
  • feeling pressure to do things ‘right’ in social situations
  • feeling self-conscious around others
  • worrying that others will notice your anxiety
  • replaying how you acted in a social situation over and over again in your mind afterwards
  • not doing things you want to do because of feeling anxious.

What causes social anxiety disorder?

There’s no one, single cause of social anxiety disorder. It is associated with a range of individual and environmental factors, and can be made worse by unhelpful thinking patterns and by avoiding situations that make a person feel anxious.

Avoiding situations isn’t helpful, because you never get a chance to see whether or not your fears are in fact true (e.g. ‘If I go to the party, everyone will stare and laugh at me’). By depriving yourself of the opportunity to prove your prediction wrong, you indirectly reinforce your belief that it’s true.

Unhelpful thinking patterns only make you feel more anxious. Obsessing about how you act in social situations rather than noticing what others are doing, overestimating the likelihood that something bad will happen (e.g. ‘People will definitely notice I’m freaking out’) and ‘catastrophising’ how bad something would be if it did happen (e.g. ‘People will think I’m a loser and never want to talk to me again’) are all examples of how thoughts can reinforce a negative belief system.

What treatments are available for social anxiety disorder?

If you think you might suffer from social anxiety disorder, the first thing you should do is seek professional help. The most effective treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is based on:

  • Education – e.g. learning about symptoms of social anxiety and why they occur.
  • Change in thinking – e.g. identifying and reframing unhelpful thinking styles that maintain social anxiety.
  • Change in behaviour – e.g. breaking the habit of avoiding social situations.

It can be particularly difficult for someone with social anxiety disorder to seek help, because seeing a mental health professional requires them to interact with someone in a social situation. It’s important to remember that mental health professionals understand your worries and will know how to talk to you. Try viewing your appointment with them as the first step in facing your fears. It might be helpful to talk to someone you know, such as your GP, about options for support, or ask a friend or family member to come with you to your appointment.

What can I do now?