What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder is a chronic mental health condition characterized by extreme distress in social interactions. While most people experience some nervousness in certain situations, such as meeting people for the first time or delivering presentations, those who live with social anxiety have difficulty with everyday interactions. They feel anxious and self-conscious to the point where it impacts their ability to conduct normal day-to-day activities.
Social anxiety disorder can vary in its intensity. In some individuals, symptoms can appear to be completely under control until a triggering event or thought makes them flare up.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder include the following:
- Fear of scrutiny and judgement
- Avoidance of situations where you are likely to be noticed
- Fear of meeting or talking to strangers
- Excessive concern over whether an interaction resulted in a positive or negative impression
- Avoidance of everyday situations, like using a public washroom, eating in front of other people, or going to work or school
- Physical symptoms include an elevated heart rate, an upset stomach, muscle tension and lightheadedness
Who is at risk?
- Inherited traits. Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. However, it isn’t entirely clear how much of this may be due to genetics and how much is due to learned behavior.
- Brain structure. A structure in the brain called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh) may play a role in controlling the fear response. People who have an overactive amygdala may have a heightened fear response, causing increased anxiety in social situations.
- Environment. Social anxiety disorder may be a learned behavior. That is, you may develop the condition after witnessing the anxious behavior of others. In addition, there may be an association between social anxiety disorder and parents who are more controlling or protective of their children.
Some factors that can add to the risk of social anxiety include the following:
- Family history: having a family member with social anxiety disorder makes you more susceptible
- Trauma: bullying, family conflict, sexual abuse and physical trauma add to the risk
- Temperament: those who are shy or averse to taking risks may be more likely to develop social anxiety
- Increased social expectations: meeting new people and delivering public presentations can trigger social anxiety symptoms
- Some physical health conditions: visible or audible conditions like Parkinson’s disease and stuttering can lead to increased self-consciousness which in turn triggers social anxiety