Humans are social animals, and their ability to relate comfortably in social situations affects many important aspects of their lives, including family, education, work, leisure, dating, and relationships.
Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder Overview of Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease that is a normal human experience. It is also present in a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder,... read more in which certain situations or objects make people fearful, anxious and cause them to avoid those things. The fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the actual threat. There are many specific phobias Specific Phobic Disorders Specific phobic disorders involve persistent, unrealistic, intense anxiety about and fear of specific situations, circumstances, or objects. The anxiety caused by a phobic disorder can interfere... read more .
Although some anxiety in social situations is normal, people with social phobia have so much anxiety that they either avoid social situations or endure them with distress. About 13% of people have social phobia sometime in their life. The disorder affects about 9% of women and 7% of men during any 12-month period.
Some adults with social phobia were shy as children, while others did not develop significant anxiety symptoms until after puberty.
People with social phobia are concerned that their performance or actions will seem inappropriate. Often, they worry that their anxiety will be obvious—that they will sweat, blush, vomit, or tremble or that their voice will quaver. They also worry that they will lose their train of thought or that they will not be able to find the words to express themselves.
Some social phobias are tied to specific performance situations, producing anxiety only when the people must perform a particular activity in public. The same activity performed alone produces no anxiety. Situations that commonly trigger anxiety among people with social phobia include the following:
Performing publicly, such as reading in church or playing a musical instrument
Eating with others
Meeting new people
Having a conversation
Signing a document before witnesses
Using a public bathroom
A more general type of social phobia is characterized by anxiety in many social situations.
In both types of social phobia, people fear that if they fail to meet other people's expectations or are scrutinized in social interactions, they will feel embarrassed, humiliated, or rejected, or will offend others.
People may or may not recognize that their fears are irrational and excessive.
Diagnosis of Social Phobia
A doctor's evaluation, based on specific criteria
Doctors diagnose social phobia when people have fear or anxiety that involves all of the following:
Is intense and has been present for 6 months or longer
Concerns one or more social situations
Nearly always occurs in the same situation or situations
Involves fear of a negative evaluation by others
Leads the person to avoid the situation or uncomfortably endure it
Is out of proportion to the actual danger
Causes significant distress or significantly impairs functioning
Also, doctors rule out other mental disorders that can cause similar symptoms, such as agoraphobia Agoraphobia Agoraphobia is fear or anxiety about being in situations or places with no way to escape easily or in which help might not be available if intense anxiety develops. These situations or places... read more , panic disorder Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder A panic attack is a brief period of extreme distress, anxiety, or fear that begins suddenly and is accompanied by physical and/or emotional symptoms. Panic disorder involves recurrent panic... read more , or body dysmorphic disorder Body Dysmorphic Disorder In body dysmorphic disorder, a preoccupation with one or more nonexistent or slight defects in appearance results in significant distress and/or impairs functioning. People typically spend hours... read more .
Treatment of Social Phobia
Antidepressants, usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
Social phobia often persists if left untreated, causing many people to avoid activities that they would otherwise like to do.
Exposure therapy is usually effective. But arranging for exposure to last long enough to allow people to get used to the anxiety-provoking situation and grow comfortable in that situation may not be easy. For example, people who are afraid of speaking in front of their boss may not be able to arrange a series of speaking sessions in front of that boss. Substitute situations may help, such as joining Toastmasters (an organization for those who have anxiety about speaking in front of an audience) or reading a book to nursing home residents.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy may also help. With this therapy, people learn to do the following:
Use relaxation techniques
Identify patterns of thinking and behavior that may trigger anxiety or panic
Adjust those patterns of thinking
Modify their behavior accordingly
Antidepressants Drug Treatment for Depression Agomelatine, a new type of antidepressant, is a possible treatment for major depressive episodes. Several types of drugs can be used to treat depression: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors... read more , such as SSRIs, and benzodiazepines (antianxiety drugs) can often help people with social phobia. SSRIs are usually preferred because they, unlike benzodiazepines, are unlikely to interfere with cognitive-behavioral therapy. Benzodiazepines affect the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and can cause sleepiness and memory problems.
Beta-blockers may be used to reduce the increased heart rate, trembling, and sweating experienced by people who are distressed by performing in public, but these drugs do not reduce anxiety itself.
More Information about Social Phobia
National Institute of Mental Health, Social Anxiety Disorder: General information on many aspects of social anxiety disorder, including prevalence statistics