Social anxiety

From time-to-time, everyone feels nervous about social situations like giving an important presentation in front of colleagues, or going on a first date. Other people might feel shy or have occasional worries about social situations like attending a party. This is completely normal, and nothing to be worried about.

However, some people have an extreme fear of social situations that is overwhelming and affects their daily lives. They may dread or worry excessively about social situations for weeks, fearing that they will do something embarrassing or be rejected, and will go to great lengths to avoid the situations or otherwise endure it with distress.

This intense, debilitating experience is called social anxiety disorder (previously known as social phobia). Social anxiety disorder is a type of mental health condition in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is the guide used by mental health professionals for diagnosis.

Social anxiety is a relatively common problem that can, fortunately, be treated successfully in many ways, as described below.

Symptoms of social anxiety

People with social anxiety have a mix of physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms that occur in connection with feared social situations. The types of feared situations and outcomes can vary widely from person-to-person.

Some examples of feared social situations that people with social anxiety might struggle with include:

Physical symptoms of anxiety that are related to social situations include:

Thoughts related to feared outcomes of social situations might include:

Behavioral signs of social anxiety include:

If some of these symptoms have been intense, persistent and affect your ability to go about your daily life 6 or more months, you may have a social anxiety disorder.

Prevalence of social anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common categories of mental health disorders, and social anxiety is no exception. Survey data suggests that around 12.1% of Americans experience social anxiety at some point during their lives (1).

Despite the availability of very successful treatment options, relatively few people with social anxiety disorder receive treatment. Data from one survey suggested that only around 80% of those with social anxiety do receive treatment (2).

Treatment options for social anxiety

People with social anxiety are often hesitant to seek help, however, it’s important to take this step to successfully overcome your anxiety. If you think you might have social anxiety, consider one or more of the following options:

Therapy for social anxiety

Many effective types of therapy can help reduce social anxiety. Common evidence-based therapeutic approaches include:

It’s important to consider different therapy types and how they resonate with you before choosing. If you’re unsure, your prospective therapist is a great person to seek advice from.

What to look for in a therapist for social anxiety

There are several factors to keep in mind when selecting a mental health professional, including:

Qualifications: With so many different providers available, it can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see. The most important thing is to look for a currently licensed therapist.

That said, if you think anti-anxiety medication might be needed, make sure you see a psychiatrist. This particular type of mental health professional is able to prescribe.

Specialization: Look for a therapist who has experience and specialized training in social anxiety or the therapy type that resonates with you. They will often include this information on their website or online profile.

Personal fit: The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. Finding a therapist you feel comfortable with is particularly important for people who experience social anxiety, who may feel highly anxious about working with a therapist.

The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also enables you to ask about their experience and what therapy with them will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding on a provider.

Sources and references