Social Anxiety Disorder

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the symptoms of social anxiety disorder
  • Examine the etiology of social anxiety disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder (formerly called social phobia) is characterized by extreme and persistent fear or anxiety and avoidance of social situations in which the person could potentially be evaluated negatively by others (APA, 2013). As with specific phobias, social anxiety disorder is common in the United States; a little over 12% of all Americans experience social anxiety disorder during their lifetime (Kessler et al., 2005).

Diagnosing Social Anxiety Disorder

An audience sits in a theater facing a stage. On the stage is a single stool and microphone stand.

Figure 1. Social anxiety disorder can cause people to miss even the most important events.

Many people consider themselves shy, and most people find social evaluation uncomfortable at best, or giving a speech somewhat mortifying. Yet, only a small proportion of the population fear these types of situations significantly enough to merit a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (APA, 2013). Social anxiety disorder is more than exaggerated shyness (Bogels et al., 2010; Schneier et al., 1996). To receive a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, the fear and anxiety associated with social situations must be so strong that the person avoids them entirely, or if avoidance is not possible, the person endures them with a great deal of distress. Further, the fear and avoidance of social situations must get in the way of the person’s daily life or seriously limit their academic or occupational functioning. For example, a patient at one clinic compromised her perfect 4.0 grade point average because she could not complete a required oral presentation in one of her classes, causing her to fail the course. Fears of negative evaluation might make someone repeatedly turn down invitations to social events or avoid having conversations with people, leading to greater and greater isolation.

The heart of the fear and anxiety for a person with social anxiety disorder is that they may act in a humiliating or embarrassing way, appear foolish; show symptoms of anxiety (blushing), or do or say something that might lead to rejection (such as offending others). The kinds of social situations in which individuals with social anxiety disorder usually have problems include public speaking, having a conversation, meeting strangers, eating in restaurants, and, in some cases, using public restrooms.

A person with social anxiety disorder fears any situation that could potentially draw attention to the person. For example, one patient went out of her way to avoid any situation in which she might have to use a public restroom for fear that someone would hear her in the bathroom stall and think she was disgusting. If the fear is limited to performance-based situations, such as public speaking, a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder-performance only is assigned.

Although many people become anxious in social situations like public speaking, the fear, anxiety, and avoidance experienced in social anxiety disorder are highly distressing and lead to serious impairments in life. For example, adults with social anxiety disorder are more likely to experience lower educational attainment and lower earnings (Katzelnick et al., 2001); perform more poorly at work; be unemployed (Moitra, Beard, Weisberg, & Keller, 2011); and report greater a dissatisfaction with their family lives, friends, leisure activities, and income (Stein & Kean, 2000).

Safety Behaviors

When people with social anxiety disorder are unable to avoid situations that provoke anxiety, they typically perform safety behaviors: mental or behavioral acts that reduce anxiety in social situations by reducing the chance of negative social outcomes. Safety behaviors include, but are not limited to avoiding eye contact, rehearsing sentences before speaking, talking only briefly, and not talking about oneself (Alden & Bieling, 1998). Other examples of safety behaviors include the following (Marker, 2013):

  • assuming roles in social situations that minimize interaction with others (e.g., taking pictures, setting up equipment, or helping prepare food)
  • asking people many questions to keep the focus off of oneself
  • selecting a position to avoid scrutiny or contact with others (sitting in the back of the room)
  • wearing bland, neutral clothes to avoid drawing attention to oneself
    A person kneeling and holding their head between their hands in fear or stress.

    Figure 2. Panic attacks can occur abruptly and cause symptoms like heart palpitations, trembling, and shortness of breath.

  • avoiding substances or activities that might cause anxiety symptoms (such as caffeine, warm clothing, and physical exercise)

Although these behaviors are intended to prevent the person with social anxiety disorder from doing something awkward that might draw criticism, these actions usually exacerbate the problem because they do not allow the individual to disconfirm their negative beliefs, often eliciting rejection and other negative reactions from others (Alden & Bieling, 1998).

A person might react so strongly to the anxiety provoked by a social situation that they have an unexpected panic attack. This panic attack then becomes associated (conditioned response) with the social situation, causing the person to fear they will panic the next time they are in that situation. This response is not considered panic disorder, however, because the person’s fear is more focused on their social evaluation than having unexpected panic attacks, and the fear of having an attack is limited to social situations. As many as 12.1% of the general population suffer from a social anxiety at some point in their lives (Kessler, Berglund, et al., 2005), making it one of the most common anxiety disorders, second only to specific phobia.

Try It

People with social anxiety disorder may resort to self-medication, such as drinking alcohol, as a means to avert the anxiety symptoms they experience in social situations (Battista & Kocovski, 2010). The use of alcohol, when faced with such situations, may become negatively reinforcing—encouraging individuals with social anxiety disorder to turn to the substance whenever they experience anxiety symptoms. The tendency to use alcohol as a coping mechanism for social anxiety, however, can come with a hefty price tag: a number of large-scale studies have reported a high rate of comorbidity between social anxiety disorder and alcohol use disorder (Morris, Stewart, & Ham, 2005).

Watch It

Watch this video for an overview of social anxiety disorder, including symptoms and common treatment methods such as CBT and medications such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers.

You can view the transcript for “Social Anxiety Disorder – causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, pathology” here (opens in new window).

Etiology of Social Anxiety Disorder

As with specific phobias, it is highly probable that the fears inherent to social anxiety disorder can develop through conditioned experiences. For example, children who are subjected to early unpleasant social experiences (e.g., bullying at school) may develop negative social images of themselves that become activated later in anxiety-provoking situations (Hackmann, Clark, & McManus, 2000). Indeed, one study reported that 92% of a sample of adults with social anxiety disorder reported a history of severe teasing in childhood, compared to only 35% of a sample of adults with panic disorder (McCabe, Antony, Summerfeldt, Liss, & Swinson, 2003).

One of the most well-established risk factors for developing social anxiety disorder is behavioral inhibition (Clauss & Blackford, 2012). Behavioral inhibition is thought to be an inherited trait, and it is characterized by a consistent tendency to show fear and restraint when presented with unfamiliar people or situations (Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988). Behavioral inhibition is displayed very early in life; behaviorally inhibited toddlers and children respond with great caution and restraint in unfamiliar situations, and they are often timid, fearful, and shy around unfamiliar people (Fox, Henderson, Marshall, Nichols, & Ghera, 2005). A recent statistical review of studies demonstrated that behavioral inhibition was associated with more than a sevenfold increase in the risk of development of social anxiety disorder, demonstrating that behavioral inhibition is a major risk factor for the disorder (Clauss & Blackford, 2012).

Key Takeaways: Social Anxiety Disorder

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Link to Learning

Watch this TedxYouth talk to hear the experiences from 9th-grader Marielle Cornes as she deals with social anxiety disorder.


behavioral Inhibition: an inherited trait characterized by a consistent tendency to show fear and restraint when they are faced with a new social interaction or situation

social anxiety disorder: characterized by extreme and persistent fear or anxiety and avoidance of social situations in which one could potentially be evaluated negatively by others