Social Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia
Symptoms, Self-Help, and Treatment to Overcome Social Anxiety
Many people get nervous or self-conscious on occasion, like when giving a speech or interviewing for a new job. But social anxiety, or social phobia, is more than just shyness or occasional nerves. With social anxiety disorder, your fear of embarrassing yourself is so intense that you avoid situations that can trigger it. No matter how painfully shy you may be and no matter how bad the butterflies, you can learn to be comfortable in social situations and reclaim your life.
What is social anxiety disorder or social phobia?
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, involves intense fear of certain social situations—especially situations that are unfamiliar or in which you feel you’ll be watched or evaluated by others. These situations may be so frightening that you get anxious just thinking about them or go to great lengths to avoid them.
Underlying social anxiety disorder or social phobia is the fear of being scrutinized, judged, or embarrassed in public. You may be afraid that people will think badly of you or that you won’t measure up in comparison to others. And even though you probably realize that your fears of being judged are at least somewhat irrational and overblown, you still can’t help feeling anxious.
While it may seem like there’s nothing you can do about the symptoms of social anxiety disorder or social phobia, in reality, there are many things that can help. It starts with understanding the problem.
Common social anxiety disorder triggers
Although it may feel like you’re the only one with this problem, social anxiety or social phobia is actually quite common. Some people experience anxiety in most social and performance situations, a condition known as generalized social anxiety disorder. For other people, anxiety is connected with specific social situations, such as speaking to strangers, mingling at parties, or performing in front of an audience.
Social anxiety triggers
At work: Public speaking, speaking up in a meeting, talking with “important” people or authority figures, being criticized.
At school: Being called on in class, taking exams, being teased or criticized.
In public: Using public bathrooms, eating or drinking in public, attending parties or other social gatherings, meeting new people, making small talk, performing on stage
In other situations: Making phone calls, being watched while doing something, being the center of attention, going on a date.
Signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder
Just because you occasionally get nervous in social situations doesn’t mean you have social anxiety disorder or social phobia. Many people feel shy or self-conscious on occasion, yet it doesn’t get in the way of their everyday functioning. Social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, does interfere with your normal routine and causes tremendous distress.
For example, it’s perfectly normal to get the jitters before giving a speech. But if you have social anxiety disorder or social phobia, you might worry for weeks ahead of time, call in sick to get out of it, or start shaking so bad during the speech that you can hardly speak.
|Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder|
Excessive self-consciousness and anxiety in everyday social situations
Intense worry for days, weeks, or even months before an upcoming social situation
Intrusive thoughts about things that make you anxious; you try to avoid thinking about them, but you can’t
Extreme fear of being watched or judged by others, especially people you don’t know
Fear that you’ll act in ways that that will embarrass or humiliate yourself
Fear that others will notice that you’re nervous
Red face, or blushing
Shortness of breath
Upset stomach, nausea (i.e. butterflies)
Trembling or shaking (including shaky voice)
Racing heart or tightness in chest
Sweating or hot flashes
Feeling dizzy or faint
Avoiding social situations to a degree that limits your activities or disrupts your life
Staying quiet or hiding in the background in order to escape notice and embarrassment
A need to always bring a buddy along with you wherever you go
Drinking before social situations in order to soothe your nerves
Social anxiety disorder in children
There’s nothing abnormal about a child being shy, but children with social anxiety disorder or social phobia experience extreme distress over everyday activities and situations such as playing with other kids, reading in class, speaking to adults, taking tests, or performing in front of others. Often, children with social phobia don’t even want to go to school.
Social anxiety disorder treatment #1: Challenge negative thoughts
Social anxiety sufferers have negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety. If you have social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, you may find yourself overwhelmed by thoughts like:
“I know I’ll end up looking like a fool.”
“My voice will start shaking and I’ll humiliate myself.”
“People will think I’m stupid.”
“I won’t have anything to say. I'll seem boring.”
Challenging these negative thoughts is an effective way to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder.
How to challenge negative thoughts
The first step is to identify the automatic negative thoughts that underlie your fear of social situations. For example, if you're worried about an upcoming work presentation, the underlying negative thought might be: “I’m going to blow it. Everyone will think I’m completely incompetent.”
The next step is to analyze and challenge them. It helps to ask yourself questions about the negative thoughts: “Do I know for sure that I’m going to blow the presentation?” or “Even if I’m nervous, will people necessarily think I’m incompetent?” Through this logical evaluation of your negative thoughts, you can gradually replace them with more realistic and positive ways of looking at social situations that trigger your anxiety.
It can be incredibly scary to think about why you feel and think the way you do about social situations, but understanding the reasons for your anxieties will help lessen their negative impact on your life.
Unhelpful thinking styles
In particular, ask yourself if you’re engaging in any of the following unhelpful thinking styles:
Mind reading – Assuming you know what other people are thinking, and that they see you in the same negative way that you see yourself.
Fortune telling – Predicting the future, usually while assuming the worst will happen. You just “know” that things will go horribly, so you’re already anxious before you’re even in the situation.
Catastrophizing – Blowing things out of proportion. For example, if people notice that you’re nervous, it will be “awful,” “terrible,” or “disastrous.”
Personalizing – Assuming that people are focusing on you in a negative way or that what’s going on with other people has to do with you.
Treatment #2: Focus on others, not yourself
When we’re in a social situation that makes us nervous, we tend to get caught up in our anxious thoughts and feelings. We monitor our bodily sensations and do our best to control them—all the while fearing that the people around us can tell we’re nervous and are judging us for it.
The hope is that by paying extra close attention we can better manage the situation. But this excessive self-focus just makes us more aware of how horrible we’re feeling, triggering worse anxiety! What’s more, it prevents us from fully concentrating on the conversations around us or the performance we’re giving.
How can I stop thinking that everyone is looking at me?
Switching from an internal to an external focus can go a long way toward reducing social anxiety. This is easier said than done, but you can’t pay attention to two things at once. The more you concentrate on what’s happening around you, the less you’ll be affected by anxiety.
Focus your attention on other people—but not on what they’re thinking of you! Instead, do your best to engage them and make a genuine connection.
Remember that anxiety isn’t as visible as you think. And even if someone notices that you’re nervous, that doesn’t mean they’ll think badly of you.
Really listen to what is being said—not to your own negative thoughts.
Focus on the present moment, rather than worrying about what you’re going to say or beating yourself up for a flub that’s already passed.
Release the pressure to be perfect. Instead, focus on being genuine and attentive—qualities that other people will appreciate.
Treatment #3: Learn to control your breath
Many changes happen in your body when you become anxious. One of the first changes is that you begin to breathe quickly. Rapid shallow breathing throws off the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body—leading to more physical symptoms of anxiety, such as dizziness, a feeling of suffocation, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.
Learning to slow your breathing down can help you bring your physical symptoms of anxiety back under control. Practicing the following breathing exercise will help you stay calm when you’re the center of attention.
A breathing exercise to help you stay calm in social situations
- Sit comfortably with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for four seconds. The hand on your stomach should rise, while the hand on your chest should move very little.
- Hold the breath for two seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth for six seconds, pushing out as much air as you can. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on keeping a slow and steady breathing pattern of 4-in, 2-hold, and 6-out.
Relaxation techniques for anxiety relief
In addition to deep breathing exercises, regular practice of relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation will also help you get control over the physical symptoms of anxiety. For step-by-step advice on getting started, see Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief.
Treatment #4: Face your fears
One of the most helpful things you can do to overcome social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is to face the social situations you fear rather than avoid them. Avoidance keeps social anxiety disorder going. It is okay to have feelings that cause you anxiety, but if these feelings are bottled up and not addressed it will be increasingly difficult to move past them. Learning to tolerate and address the feelings will help you feel better.
Avoidance leads to more problems
While avoiding nerve-wracking situations may help you feel better in the short term, it prevents you from becoming more comfortable in social situations and learning how to cope in the long term. In fact, the more you avoid a feared social situation, the more frightening it becomes.
Avoidance may also prevent you from doing things you’d like to do or reaching certain goals. For example, a fear of speaking up may prevent you from sharing your ideas at work, standing out in the classroom, or making new friends.
Challenging social anxiety one step at a time
While it may seem impossible to overcome a feared social situation, you can do it by taking it one small step at a time. The key is to start with a situation that you can handle and gradually work your way up to more challenging situations, building your confidence and coping skills as you move up the “anxiety ladder.”
For example, if socializing with strangers makes you anxious, you might start by accompanying an outgoing friend to a party. Once you’re comfortable with that step, you might try introducing yourself to one new person, and so on.
Working your way up the “anxiety ladder”
Don’t try to face your biggest fear right away. It’s never a good idea to move too fast, take on too much, or force things. This will backfire and reinforce your anxiety.
Be patient. Overcoming social anxiety takes time and practice. It’s a gradual step-by-step progress.
Use the skills you’ve learned to stay calm, such as focusing on your breathing and challenging negative assumptions.
Treatment #5: Build better relationships
Actively seeking out and joining supportive social environments is another effective way of tackling and overcoming social anxiety disorder or social phobia. The following suggestions are good ways to start interacting with others in positive ways:
Take a social skills class or an assertiveness training class. These classes are often offered at local adult education centers or community colleges.
Volunteer doing something you enjoy, such as walking dogs in a shelter, or stuffing envelopes for a campaign—anything that will give you an activity to focus on while you are also engaging with a small number of like-minded people.
Work on your communication skills. Good relationships depend on clear, emotionally-intelligent communication. If you find that you have trouble connecting to others, learning the basic skills of emotional intelligence can help.
Treatment #6: Change your lifestyle
While lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to overcome social phobia or social anxiety disorder, they can support your overall treatment progress. The following lifestyle tips will help you reduce your overall anxiety levels and set the stage for successful treatment:
Avoid or limit caffeine. Coffee, tea, caffeinated soda, energy drinks, and chocolate act as stimulants that increase anxiety symptoms.
Drink only in moderation. You may be tempted to drink before a party or other social situation in order to calm your nerves, but alcohol increases your risk of having an anxiety attack.
Quit smoking. Nicotine is a powerful stimulant. Contrary to popular belief, smoking leads to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety.
Get adequate sleep. When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more vulnerable to anxiety. Being well rested will help you stay calm in social situations.
When self-help for social anxiety isn’t enough
The best treatment approach for social anxiety disorder varies from person to person. You may find that self-help strategies are enough to ease your social anxiety symptoms. If you’ve tried the techniques above and you’re still struggling with disabling anxiety, you may need professional help as well.
Therapy for social anxiety
Of all the professional treatments available, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to work the best for treating social anxiety disorder, or social phobia. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the premise that what you think affects how you feel, and your feelings affect your behavior. So if you change the way you think about social situations that give you anxiety, you’ll feel and function better.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for social phobia typically involves:
Learning how to control the physical symptoms of anxiety through relaxation techniques and breathing exercises.
Challenging negative, unhelpful thoughts that trigger and fuel social anxiety, replacing them with more balanced views.
Facing the social situations you fear in a gradual, systematic way, rather than avoiding them.
While you can learn and practice these exercises on your own, if you’ve had trouble with self-help, you may benefit from the extra support and guidance a therapist brings.
Other cognitive-behavioral techniques for social anxiety disorder include role-playing and social skills training, often as part of a therapy group.
Group therapy for social anxiety disorder uses acting, videotaping and observing, mock interviews, and other exercises to work on situations that make you anxious in the real world. As you practice and prepare for situations you’re afraid of, you will become more and more comfortable and confident in your social abilities, and your anxiety will lessen.
Medication is sometimes used to relieve the symptoms of social anxiety, but it’s not a cure for social anxiety disorder or social phobia. If you stop taking medication, your symptoms will probably return full force. Medication is considered most helpful when used in addition to therapy and other self-help techniques that address the root cause of social anxiety disorder.
Three types of medication are used in the treatment of social anxiety disorder / social phobia:
Beta blockers – Beta blockers are used for relieving performance anxiety. They work by blocking the flow of adrenaline that occurs when you’re anxious. While beta blockers don’t affect the emotional symptoms of anxiety, they can control physical symptoms such as shaking hands or voice, sweating, and rapid heartbeat.
Antidepressants – Antidepressants can be helpful when social anxiety disorder is severe and debilitating. Three specific antidepressants—Paxil, Effexor, and Zoloft—have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of social phobia.
Benzodiazepines – Benzodiazepines are fast-acting anti-anxiety medications. However, they are sedating and addictive, so they are typically prescribed only when other medications for social phobia have not worked.
If you need powerful social and emotional skills that help you reduce stress and anxiety, read FEELING LOVED.
More help for anxiety
- How to Stop Worrying: Self-Help Tips for Relieving Anxiety, Worry, and Fear
- Anxiety Medication: What You Need to Know About Anti-Anxiety Drugs
- Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Resources and references
Signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder
Social Anxiety Phobia Symptoms – An introduction to social anxiety and the symptoms used for diagnosis. (PsychCentral)
Social Anxiety Fact Sheet – Covers what can trigger social anxiety, signs and symptoms, and treatment options. (Social Anxiety Association)
Social anxiety disorder in children and adolescents
Social Phobia – Written for teens, this article provides an overview of social phobia, its causes, and tips for dealing with it. (TeensHealth)
Shyness and Social Phobia: A Self-Help Guide – Offers self-help strategies for dealing with the symptoms of social anxiety disorder, including cognitive-behavioral techniques. (Moodjuice)
Shy No Longer – Series of self-help workbooks with step-by-step tips on how to cope with and overcome social anxiety disorder. (Centre for Clinical Interventions)
Self Help Strategies for Social Anxiety (PDF) – Information on how to “build a toolbox” of strategies for dealing with and overcoming social anxiety (AnxietyBC)
What is Comprehensive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy? – Describes how cognitive-behavioral therapy is used in the treatment of the physical and emotional symptoms of social phobia. (Social Anxiety Institute)
Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder – Covers treatment options for social anxiety disorder, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and slow breathing. (Shyness & Social Anxiety Treatment Australia)
Support organizations for anxiety disorders
National Alliance on Mental Illness Information Helpline – Helpline with trained volunteers providing information, referrals, and support for those in the U.S. (NAMI)
Anxiety UK – Information, support, and a dedicated helpline for UK sufferers and their families. (Anxiety UK)
Anxiety Disorders, Canada – Provides links to services and helplines in different Canadian provinces. (Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada)
SANE Helpline – Provides helpline and support in Australia. (SANE Australia).
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