It's natural to feel self-conscious, nervous, or shy in front of others at times.
Most people get through these moments when they need to. But for some, the anxiety
that goes with feeling shy or self-conscious can be extreme.
When people feel so self-conscious and anxious that it prevents them from speaking
up or socializing most of the time, it's probably more than shyness. It may be an
anxiety condition called
social phobia (also called social anxiety).
What Happens When Someone Has Social Phobia?
Extreme feelings of shyness and self-consciousness build into a powerful fear.
As a result, a person feels uncomfortable participating in everyday social situations.
People with social phobia can usually interact easily with family and a few close
friends. But meeting new people, talking in a group, or speaking in public can cause
their extreme shyness to kick in.
With social phobia, a person's extreme shyness, self-consciousness, and fears of
embarrassment get in the way of life. Instead of enjoying social activities, people
with social phobia might dread them — and avoid some of them altogether.
What Causes Social Phobia?
Like other phobias, social phobia is a fear reaction to something that isn't actually
dangerous — although the body and mind react as if the danger is real. This
means that someone feels physical sensations of fear, like a faster heartbeat and
breathing. These are part of the body's fight–flight
response. They're caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that
prepare the body to either fight or make a quick getaway.
This biological mechanism kicks in when we feel afraid. It's a built-in nervous
system response that alerts us to danger so we can protect ourselves. With social
phobia, this response gets activated too often, too strongly, and in situations where
it's out of place. Because the physical sensations that go with the response are real
— and sometimes quite strong — the danger seems real too. So the person
will react by freezing up, and will feel unable to interact.
As the body experiences these physical sensations, the mind goes through emotions
like feeling afraid or nervous.
People with social phobia tend to interpret these sensations and emotions in a
way that leads them to avoid the situation ("Uh-oh, my heart's pounding, this must
be dangerous — I'd better not do it!"). Someone else might interpret the same
physical sensations of nervousness a different way ("OK, that's just my heart beating
fast. It's me getting nervous because it's almost my turn to speak. It happens every
time. No big deal.").
What Fears Are Involved?
With social phobia, a person's fears and concerns are focused on their social performance
— whether it's a major class presentation or small talk at the lockers.
People with social phobia tend to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable about being
noticed or judged by others. They're more sensitive to fears that they'll be embarrassed,
look foolish, make a mistake, or be criticized or laughed at. No one wants to go through
these things. But most people don't really spend much time worrying about it. The
fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the situation.
How Can Social Phobia Affect Someone's Life?
With social phobia, thoughts and fears about what others think get exaggerated
in someone's mind. The person starts to focus on the embarrassing things that could
happen, instead of the good things. This makes a situation seem much worse than it
is, and influences a person to avoid it.
Some of the ways social phobia can affect someone's life include:
Feeling lonely or disappointed over missed opportunities for friendship
and fun. Social phobia might prevent someone from chatting with friends in
the lunchroom, joining an after-school club, going to a party, or asking someone on
Not getting the most out of school. Social phobia might keep
a person from volunteering an answer in class, reading aloud, or giving a presentation.
Someone with social phobia might feel too nervous to ask a question in class or go
to a teacher for help.
Missing a chance to share their talents and learn new skills.
Social phobia might prevent someone from auditioning for the school play, being in
the talent show, trying out for a team, or joining in a service project. Social phobia
not only prevents people from trying new things. It also prevents them from making
the normal, everyday mistakes that help people improve their skills still further.
What Is Selective Mutism?
Some kids and teens are so extremely shy and so fearful about talking to others,
that they don't speak at all to some people (such as a teacher or students they don't
know) or in certain places (like at someone else's house). This form of social phobia
is sometimes called selective mutism.
People with selective mutism can talk. They have completely normal conversations
with the people they're comfortable with or in certain places. But other situations
cause them such extreme anxiety that they may not be able to bring themselves to talk
Some people might mistake their silence for a stuck-up attitude or rudeness. But
with selective mutism and social phobia, silence stems from feeling uncomfortable
and afraid, not from being uncooperative, disrespectful, or rude.
Why Do Some People Develop Social Phobia?
Kids, teens, and adults can have social phobia. Most of the time, it starts when
a person is young. Like other anxiety-based problems, social phobia develops because
of a combination of three factors:
A person's biological makeup. Social phobia could be partly due
to the genes and temperament a person inherits. Inherited genetic traits from parents
and other relatives can influence how the brain senses and regulates anxiety, shyness,
nervousness, and stress reactions. Likewise, some people are born with a shy temperament
and tend to be cautious and sensitive in new situations and prefer what's familiar.
Most people who develop social phobia have always had a shy temperament.
Not everyone with a shy temperament develops social phobia (in fact, most don't).
It's the same with genes. But people who inherit these traits do have an increased
chance of developing social phobia.
Behaviors learned from role models (especially parents). A person's
naturally shy temperament can be influenced by what he or she learns from role models.
If parents or others react by overprotecting a child who is shy, the child won't have
a chance to get used to new situations and new people. Over time, shyness can build
into social phobia.
Shy parents might also unintentionally set an example
by avoiding certain social interactions. A shy child who watches this learns that
socializing is uncomfortable, distressing, and something to avoid.
Life events and experiences. If people born with a cautious nature
have stressful experiences, it can make them even more cautious and shy. Feeing pressured
to interact in ways they don't feel ready for, being criticized or humiliated, or
having other fears and worries can make it more likely for a shy or fearful person
to develop social anxiety.
People who constantly receive critical or
disapproving reactions may grow to expect that others will judge them negatively.
Being teased or bullied will make people who are already shy likely to retreat into
their shells even more. They'll be scared of making a mistake or disappointing someone,
and will be more sensitive to criticism.
The good news is that the effect of these negative experiences can be turned around
with some focused slow-but-steady effort. Fear can be learned. And it can also be
Dealing With Social Phobia
People with social phobia can learn to manage fear, develop confidence and coping
skills, and stop avoiding things that make them anxious. But it's not always easy.
Overcoming social phobia means getting up the courage it takes to go beyond what's
comfortable, little by little.
Here's who can support and guide people in overcoming social phobia:
Therapists can help people recognize the physical sensations
caused by fight–flight and teach them to interpret these sensations more accurately.
Therapists can help people create a plan for facing social fears one by one, and help
them build the skills and confidence to do it. This includes practicing new behaviors.
Sometimes, but not always, medications that reduce anxiety are used as part of the
treatment for social phobia.
Family or friends are especially important for people who are
dealing with social phobia. The right support from a few key people can help those
with social phobia gather the courage to go outside their comfort zone and try something
Putdowns, lectures, criticisms, and demands to change don't help
— and just make a person feel bad. Having social phobia isn't a person's fault
and isn't something anyone chooses. Instead, friends and family can encourage people
with social phobia to pick a small goal to aim for, remind them to go for it, and
be there when they might feel discouraged. Good friends and family are there to celebrate
each small success along the way.
Overcoming Social Phobia
Dealing with social phobia takes patience, courage to face fears and try new things,
and the willingness to practice. It takes a commitment to go forward rather than back
away when feeling shy.
Little by little, someone who decides to deal with extreme shyness can learn to
be more comfortable. Each small step forward helps build enough confidence to take
the next small step. As shyness and fears begin to melt, confidence and positive feelings
build. Pretty soon, the person is thinking less about what might feel uncomfortable
and more about what might be fun.