Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is one of the most common mental disorders in North America today. In fact, as of 2019, it affects the lives of over 15 million adults in the U.S. alone. When we say “social anxiety disorder,” we don’t mean acting a little shy at a party or getting sweaty palms before an interview, we mean intense fear of everyday social situations such as buying something from a store clerk or looking someone directly in the eye.
How Does Social Anxiety Develop?
Many people will report that their social anxiety “started” at a particular time in their lives. Though it tends to develop in the early teenage years, social anxiety could develop at any time in a person’s life.
Social anxiety can be caused by both biological and environmental factors:
One particularly interesting factor in developing social anxiety is brain function. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed that those with social anxiety showed more blood flow to the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear) when placed in scary social situations than those who had never experienced an extreme form of social anxiety.
It’s also worth noting that genetics play a significant role in whether or not a person will develop social anxiety. If you have an immediate family member who has social anxiety, you will run a higher risk of developing it yourself.
Biological factors can guarantee a certain “susceptibility” to develop social anxiety. In contrast, environmental factors like a disapproving parent, social rejection from classmates, or living in a society with strict social rules can increase the likelihood of developing the disorder.
It’s been found that children with parents or guardians who have SAD will have a higher chance of developing the disorder than those who live with parents who don’t have the disorder. A big part of this is the little signals that the parents give off, showing the child that social situations are something to be worried about. A parent who is worried about how they come off to other people will pass those habits and thinking patterns onto their child as their child observes their parent’s behaviour around people.
It’s also worth considering what type of society the sufferer grew up in. Certain cultures like the kind you’d find in Korea, Japan or even Canada, put a considerable amount of importance on politeness and acting reserved in public. In these cultures, being rude, loud or making someone else uncomfortable is very much frowned upon and even worth shaming someone over. The likelihood of getting shamed or singled out for acting out of line is a lot higher in these more reserved cultures and could spawn on social anxiety in certain individuals.
What Are the Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder?
These are the most common symptoms associated with social anxiety disorder:
- Faster than usual heartbeat
- Tension in the muscles
- Confusion, mind going blank
- Difficulty making eye contact
- Trembling or shaking
- Difficulty getting words out
- Lump in the throat
- Blurred vision
- Chest pain
Some activities that make cause these symptoms include:
- Making a phone call in a public place
- Talking to a stranger
- Using a public washroom
- Eating in public
- Going on a date
- Going for a job interview
- Going to the hairdresser
- Walking down a crowded street
- Going to the doctor
- Going to a family function
Any sort of activity that involves being the center of attention or meeting new, unknown people could be classified as scary for someone suffering from social anxiety disorder.
How Do You Treat Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder, whether life-long or acute, can be treated through a wide variety of different methods:
CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
One of the most effective ways to treat social anxiety disorder is CBT. This thoughtful form of therapy teaches the sufferer to be critical of their black and white thoughts. For example, a CBT practitioner might isolate a problematic thought their patient is having like: “If I eat my lunch in the cafeteria, everyone will be looking at me and will judge the way I eat my food.” The therapist might bring up that not everyone will be looking at you; in fact, some people will be busy reading or looking at their phones.
It makes sense that exposure to other humans who understand what you’re going through can help to heal social anxiety disorder. Group therapy can provide a safe space for a person with social anxiety disorder to practice interacting with other people, advise those suffering from the same disorder, learn vicariously through the interactions of the group and receive guidance from the lead therapist
Social Anxiety Vs. Shyness
Many people consider themselves generally shy, especially if they are at a big social event with lots of strangers or are standing in front of a large crowd of people making a speech. Shyness is a mild form of social anxiety. Though shy people will still experience symptoms of social anxiety such as blushing and sweating, the frequency and severity of these symptoms will be relatively muted and “livable.”
People with severe social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, will experience these symptoms in a much more intense way and at a much higher frequency. SAD sufferers will actively avoid scary social situations. They will often report that they’ve missed out on things like parties, weddings, awards ceremonies, and job opportunities because of their severe anxiety symptoms associated with these types of events.
If you find yourself strategically planning your days out, making sure you avoid certain types of people or social situations, you might be a candidate for social anxiety disorder. Those with SAD will also sometimes find it hard to speak or even look at another person in the eye.
Social Anxiety Vs. Introversion
Introvert vs. extrovert tests are a dime a dozen. Almost everyone these days knows which type they fall under. You might think that introversion and social anxiety go hand in hand, but it’s entirely possible and even common for an extrovert to have social anxiety.
Being an introvert means that you require alone time to recharge and gain energy. Closing your bedroom door and breathing a sigh of relief after a busy social event is a classic introvert situation.
An introvert can be more than happy to interact with people but will eventually need to spend some time alone in order to reconnect with themselves. An introvert might also do something like turn down an invitation to a party because he/she would sincerely rather relax and recharge at home. A person with social anxiety might turn down the invitation because they don’t want to embarrass themselves or are afraid of blushing or getting tongue-tied in front of people. This tendency to avoid is the most significant difference between introversion and SAD.
Social anxiety disorder is one of the most misunderstood of the anxiety disorders. It can be frustrating for the sufferer to experience these sudden symptoms that are keeping them from living the social life they’d prefer. Social anxiety is a bit of a funny thing in that the sufferer is both simultaneously afraid of and desperately wants to connect with the people around them. Luckily SAD is one of the most treatable anxiety disorders out there, and there are many different support groups available that can create a safe ground for learning or re-learning social skills.