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What Is Social Anxiety?
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 others, 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 a mental health problem known as social anxiety (also called social phobia).
Overcoming social anxiety means going beyond what’s comfortable, little by little. But other people will be there to support and guide you.
What Happens With Social Anxiety?
People with social anxiety can usually interact easily with family and a few close friends. But because of extreme shyness, meeting new people, talking in a group, or speaking in public can become an extreme fear. Everyday social situations become uncomfortable.
Social anxiety is a fear reaction to something that isn’t actually dangerous — but the body and mind react as if the danger is real. This is a response called “fight or flight.” It’s caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that prepare you to fight or make a quick getaway.
This leads people to avoid the situation (“Uh-oh, my heart’s pounding, this must be dangerous — I’d better not do it!”). Someone else without this fear might respond to the same physical feelings 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 Causes Social Anxiety?
Like other anxiety-based problems, social anxiety can develop from of a mix of 3 things:
- Your genes. Social anxiety can be partly due to the genes a person inherits. Traits from parents can influence how the brain reacts to anxiety, shyness, nervousness, and stress.
- Behaviors learned from role models (especially parents). If parents or others overprotect a shy child, the child won’t have a chance to get used to new people and situations. Over time, shyness can build into social anxiety.
- Life events and experiences. If cautious people have stressful experiences, it can make them more shy and cautious. Feeling pressured to interact in ways they don’t feel ready for, being criticized or humiliated, or having other fears and worries can make social anxiety worse.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Social Anxiety?
Often, social anxiety starts in childhood. Emotionally, a person may feel self-conscious and uncomfortable about being noticed or judged by others. They might fear being embarrassed, looking foolish, making a mistake, or being criticized or laughed at.
Your body may have signs and symptoms like a fast heartbeat, breathing quickly, shaking, sweating, or blushing. You may also have nausea, avoid eye contact, or feel like your mind has gone blank.
How Can Social Anxiety Affect My Life?
Ways that social anxiety can affect your life include:
- Feeling lonely or disappointed over missed chances for friendship and fun. You might avoid chatting with friends in the lunchroom, joining an after-school club, attending a party, or going on a date.
- Not getting the most out of school. You might not feel confident enough to answer in class, read aloud, give a presentation, or go to a teacher for help.
- Missing a chance to share talents and learn new skills. Social anxiety might prevent you from auditioning for a school play, being in a talent show, trying out for a team, or joining in a service project.
How Is Social Anxiety Treated?
If you think you might have social anxiety, talk with a parent or your doctor. They’ll likely have you see a therapist to help you recognize the physical feelings of social anxiety and figure out what they mean. One widely used therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps you:
- understand how thoughts, feelings, and actions affect each other
- replace negative thoughts with positive ones
- manage strong emotions and challenging situations
- change behaviors and face your fears with exposure to what scares you
Sometimes your doctor may also prescribe medicine to help reduce anxiety.
With treatment, you can learn to manage fear, develop confidence and coping skills, and stop avoiding things that make you anxious.
What Else Should I Know About Social Anxiety?
Dealing with social anxiety takes patience, the courage to face fears and try new things, and the willingness to practice. Pretty soon, though, you’ll think less about what might feel uncomfortable and more about what might be fun.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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Images sourced by The Nemours Foundation and Getty Images.