What Is Social Anxiety Disorder? Common Misconceptions and Treatment Options

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

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When you’re in the throes of anxiety, it can feel extremely isolating and debilitating. However, this condition is more prevalent than many people realize. 

Research shows that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting around 40 million adults each year. This encompasses many mental health disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and others. It also includes social anxiety disorder (SAD). 

Affecting 15 million adults (7.1% of the U.S. population), SAD can alter every aspect of an individual’s life. Today, we’re diving into this condition, answering “What is social anxiety disorder?”, exploring common misconceptions, and sharing treatment options. 

What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder is a chronic mental health condition in which exposure to social events triggers intense bouts of nervousness and fear in the affected individual. 

Someone with this condition will feel extremely self-conscious and embarrassed around others, concerned that they will act in a way that brings scrutiny or judgment. As a result, they may avoid social interactions altogether, or suffer through them with intense discomfort. This disorder can affect everything from their relationships and daily routines to their professional endeavors, academic pursuits, and personal hobbies. 

Specific vs. Generalized Social Anxiety Disorder

There are two main types of social anxiety disorder: specific and generalized. If someone feels anxious in only one or two social situations (such as public speaking or meeting new people), then it’s considered specific. If they fear or avoid nearly all social situations where other people are present, it’s generalized. 

Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder

Certain scenarios naturally elicit a nervous response. For instance, you may feel butterflies before giving a big presentation at work. However, those feelings are normally short-lived. 

For individuals who suffer from SAD, anxiety is nearly always present, regardless of whether the social interaction is inherently nerve-wracking or not. This can manifest in many different ways, altering their behavioral, emotional, and even physical state. 

Some of the most common behavioral/emotional symptoms include: 

  • Intense fear of interacting with strangers in everyday settings
  • Constant worry about embarrassing oneself
  • Constant fear of rejection, criticism, or judgment 
  • Anxiety over anticipating upcoming events
  • Over-analyzing one’s performance at an event to identify flaws

In addition, the individual may also experience physical symptoms, such as:

  • Sweating
  • Quickened heartbeat
  • Blushing
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Difficulty breathing or catching one’s breath

In most cases, signs of SAD usually begin in the early to mid-teens. However, younger children and older adults can also develop these symptoms. 

Common Misconceptions About SAD

The symptoms of this condition can be multi-faceted and they aren’t always easy to identify. This has given rise to many social anxiety misconceptions that paint SAD in an inaccurate light. Let’s take a look at (and debunk) some of the most common ones. 

It’s Just Nerves

As mentioned, social anxiety can bring about feelings of nervousness. However, this condition is more wide-reaching, affecting the individual’s emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and physical state.

Someone with SAD isn’t just nervous or extra shy around others. Rather, they experience anxiety to a degree that’s often immobilizing or incapacitating. Most of the time, someone who’s simply shy is hesitant to talk to someone new or enter a social situation, but they can do so if they want to. 

Conversely, those with SAD will find it nearly impossible to engage in most social situations. From making small talk and speaking on the phone to attending a gathering or speaking up at work, their reaction to these events prohibits them from engaging at all. 

They Don’t Want to Be Social

When someone with SAD cancels an appointment or backs out of an event due to nerves, it’s easy to assume they simply don’t want to socialize. While everyone is unique, the reality is that most people with this condition do want to be more social, but their anxiety gets in the way.  

In addition, most people with SAD are social with their close friends and family members. If they’ve already established these relationships, there’s less fear of being judged due to their anxiety. 

It’s Just Something to Live With

The symptoms of SAD aren’t something to ignore. In some situations, they can become so painful that the individual cannot work or even leave the house. Assuming that it’s simply something to overcome or accept as reality significantly limits their quality of life. 

With effective social anxiety treatment, people with this condition can go on to live happy, healthy lives free of the restraints that hold them back from interacting with others. 

Types of Social Anxiety Treatment 

Before beginning any type of treatment for social anxiety, the individual should first get a diagnosis from a mental health professional. While some conditions warrant the use of medication, therapy is often the most effective route. 

Specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be one of the most helpful tools in teaching individuals the skills they need to overcome their phobia of social interaction. Through CBT, people who suffer from social anxiety can take a close look at how their unhealthy thought patterns and avoidance behaviors are affecting their lives. 

Their therapist will not only walk them through the condition but also teach them the skills they need to successfully manage their anxiety and navigate social situations more easily. These sessions can be conducted on a one-on-one basis or in a group setting. 

Find Life Beyond Social Anxiety

What is social anxiety disorder? More than mere nerves, it’s a condition that affects nearly every part of an individual’s life, severely limiting their ability to meet, converse with, and enjoy others. Individuals with this disorder fear they’ll be judged or scrutinized at every interaction, which leads to avoidance.

Thankfully, most people with SAD can learn ways to healthily manage their symptoms through treatments such as CBT. At Advanced Behavioral Health, we specialize in treating a range of mental health conditions, including social anxiety. To learn more about our services, make an appointment today!

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