What is Social Anxiety?

This page gives you a brief overview of social anxiety. If you wish to learn more about social anxiety yourself or provide information for family, friends, carers or health care professions then you may like to view this additional document titled, 'Information on Social Anxiety'.

Social anxiety is a term used to describe the fear, nervousness, and apprehension someone experiences during interactions and relationships with other people. Social anxiety is very closely related to shyness and when severe, can be labelled as Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia. Almost everyone experiences some degree of social anxiety, but usually it is not significant enough to prevent them from living a full and sociable life. For example, most people experience some nervousness before speaking to an audience or when meeting new people, but they can still perform these task and can feel relaxed once they are used to the situation. For people with Social Anxiety Disorder these fears do not easily subside and can reach a level where they can permeate into nearly every social situation and significantly limit quality of life and well-being.

What is it like to be socially anxious?

On the surface, being very socially anxious might seem like a lonely, but manageable way to be, but when you consider just how much of our life involves dealing with people, then you can start to appreciate how difficult living with severe social anxiety can be. Even small every day tasks such as going to the shop to buy milk, phoning to book an appointment, standing in a queue, getting a haircut, passing someone you know in the street or having your lunch in the canteen can all trigger much self-consciousness and anxiety for people with severe social anxiety. People's lives can start to shut down when social anxiety makes even these basic tasks painful. It is not uncommon for people with social anxiety to drop out of education, be unemployed, decline promotions or leave their job due to anxiety. Some will turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping and this can then lead to addiction and further problems. Sadly some people will find life with social anxiety so hard that they see no option other than to end their life. Many people with social anxiety have never experienced having intimate relationships, even when in their thirties, forties or beyond, not because they are undesirable people or they do not want a relationship, but because intimacy causes them a lot of anxiety.

Are you experiencing high levels of social anxiety?

Social anxiety is different for everyone, but there are features that are common amongst the people who experience significant levels of it. If you experience many of the items on this list then you may be experiencing high levels of social anxiety. Not all of them will apply to all people who are finding social situations difficult.

  • Feeling very self-conscious in some or most normal social situations.
  • Constantly worrying about what others think of you.
  • Finding that your mind goes blank when you try to speak to people.
  • Experience trembling, blushing, or sweating in social situations and fearing that other people might notice these reactions.
  • Having a tendency to look back over social situations and ruminate about things you think you did wrong, and then feeling anxious or embarrassed about them.
  • Having strong fears about opening up to people and expressing your personality to them.
  • Finding it uncomfortable to make eye-contact with people.
  • Constantly feeling like others find you boring or annoying to be around.
  • Often being scared that other people are going to be angry with you.
  • Hating being the centre of attention or being put on the spot and getting acutely embarrassed when it happens.
  • Avoiding a lot of social situations and people in general.
  • Often experiencing feelings of frustration or anger with yourself and your life.
  • Being very self-critical and negative about yourself.
  • Feeling very isolated, lonely and detached from other people or society.
  • Finding it difficult to speak to people in positions of authority.
  • Feeling very self-conscious about eating, drinking or writing in front of other people.
  • Lacking motivation or feeling hopeless about being able to change, make friends or have intimate relationships.

NOTE: This page is meant for educational purposes only and should in no way replace advice from a medical professional.

How many people experience social anxiety in this way?

Some studies indicate that as much as 7% of the population will experience high levels of social anxiety in the form of Social Anxiety Disorder at some point in their life, making it the most common anxiety disorder and third most common mental health problem after depression and alcohol addiction. Other studies indicate a lower number of 2%, but either way, millions of people are experiencing high levels of social anxiety every day and social anxiety is a very prevalent challenge in our society. Many of these people do not understand why they find socialising so difficult and do not realise that others are going through very similar difficulties. It is common for people who are socially anxious to think that they are the only person who feels this way and who has these social difficulties. Some research indicates that equal numbers of men and women experience high levels of social anxiety, while other research suggests that it is more common for women to experience high social anxiety. A large number of people will endure their social anxiety for years or decades before seeking help, often because they do not know that help is available and because the very nature of social anxiety makes it difficult for them to seek help.

Can it be overcome?

Undoubtedly, the answer to this is, yes. Everyone experiencing social anxiety has a good chance of being able to overcome their fears and live a fuller and more confident life. Often the biggest hurdles people face are believing that change is possible and staying committed to applying what they learn. Joining our groups can help with this as seeing other people who have already made significant progress both inspires and motivates. How much progress you make will largely depend on your faith in what can help, and your persistence in applying it. Please visit a group session and the Getting Help section of this website for more information. The Testimonials from our group members may help give you some hope and inspiration.

Lonely girl sitting on stairs with head in hands

The key aspects of Social Anxiety

Social anxiety nearly always includes the following...

  • Fear of being negatively evaluated by others
  • Self-consciousness
  • Mind going blank, shaking, blushing, sweating or other anxiety symptoms you are concerned others might notice
  • Avoidance or endured anxiety
  • Self-criticism
  • Loneliness
  • Limited self-expression

 

Shy girl standing apart from a crowd

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

It is the term used to describe high levels of social anxiety that keeps going through vicious cycles. Social Anxiety Disorder can have a significant impact on a person's well-being and quality of life. The term has also come about as a criteria for health care professionals to use to decide if a person might need psychiatric assistance. This criteria can be viewed here.

What is Social Phobia?

This is the old name for Social Anxiety Disorder. It was changed because, technically, it does not function in quite the same way as a phobia.

What is Shyness?

Shyness is a term that does not have a clear definition, but we generally think of it in terms of behaviours of social hesitation and withdrawal. Although opinions will differ, there is potentially no difference at all between shyness and social anxiety, but because it has no fixed definition, it is impossible to argue either way.

What is Avoidant Personality Disorder?

Originally identified as a separate disorder, but now more generally thought of as very high levels of social anxiety combined with a strong pattern of social avoidance - something that is commonly (but not always) found in Social Anxiety Disorder anyway.

More information

Wikipedia information on Social Anxiety Disorder

Wikipedia information on Avoidant Personality Disorder

Comprehensive description of social anxiety disorder, social phobia and extreme shyness

Information on Social Anxiety from the National anxiety charity, Anxiety UK

Social Anxiety UK

Social Phobia World