Mild social shyness, timidity or nervousness are common and normal personality traits. Shyness and timidity often decrease with age as the individual gains more experience and skills in different areas of life. Social boldness also varies according to circumstances: for example, others may become extremely nervous when giving speeches and presentations while others may stress about formal situations.
Fear of social situations is classified as a mental disorder when the fear and other symptoms linked to social situations significantly begin to affect ordinary life and the anxiety associated with these kinds of situations becomes very intense. This syndrome is known as social phobia.
Social phobias often develop during childhood and adolescence, and it may have a negative effect on school performance. The occurence of social phobias seems to be linked with genes, difficult experiences and learned behavioural patterns.
Social phobias can make life extremely difficult
The fear of social situations, i.e. social phobia, restricts and complicates personal relationships, work and studies. Different kinds of situations cause severe anxiety in different people. People suffering from social phobia may become extremely anxious when, for example, they have to speak in a meeting, meet doctors or other people they consider authorities or make telephone calls. Even simple social interaction at work or school may cause anxiety.
At its worst, people suffering from social phobias begin to avoid situations they consider distressing, isolating themselves from work, studies and personal relationships. When the fear of social situations concerns almost all situations involving interaction with other people, we are talking about a generalised social phobia.
Symptoms of social phobia
The physical symptoms of social phobia include palpitations, vertigo, tremors, sweating, a feeling of pressure in the stomach or head, dry mouth and throat or headache. Coffee, substance use and lack of sleep can make the symptoms worse.
The anxiety experienced in social phobia involves the fear of being humiliated and ashamed. These fears are unrealistic and, to some extent, unconscious. In distressing situations, people suffering from social phobias will become highly focused on their own coping and symptoms.
They may also think that all the other people in the same situation are criticising their coping, even though that is not true. People suffering from social phobias are often perfectionists who demand too much of themselves and are too hard on themselves, as well.
Social phobias may lead to other problems
Generalised social phobia, in particular, may lead to depression or can be strongly linked to depression. Some people suffering from social phobias resort to alcohol or other substances in order to alleviate the symptoms. However, substance use only makes the situation worse. In addition, substance use involves the risk of addiction. The suffering caused by social phobias may even lead to suicidal thoughts.
Social phobias can be treated effectively; treatment should be sought as soon as you identify feelings of intense fear in yourself in connection to social situations.
Social phobias are treated with medication and psychotherapy
Social phobias can be successfully treated with medication and psychotherapy, or with a combination of both. Short-term therapy has often proven to be a successful method for treating non-generalised social phobias, whereas generalised social phobias are treated with longer-term therapy.