It is normal to feel nervous, even intimated, when in the presence of other people. This is especially true when we are around those whose opinions matter to us, like an employer, a potential life partner, or a peer. We are always vulnerable to the scrutiny of others, and at any moment people around us can take away their approval and goodwill. The potential for rejection and censure in every situation can be a scary thing.
But there is a huge difference between appropriate social anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
The first one is manageable — in fact, it can be channeled positively towards personal development. The second is dysfunctional. It can keep an individual from working productively, as well as establishing deep and meaningful relationships. It can even result in so much physical and emotional distress, that the anxiety interferes with all aspects of a person’s life.
If you feel that your social anxiety is already pathological, it’s time to seek help and/or initiate an appropriate intervention. To guide you further in your personal assessment, below is some more information about this often overlooked mental health condition:
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook of most mental health professionals, defines SAD as the ‘significant and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment, rejection or scrutiny is possible.”
There are two key terms in this definition: significant and persistent. Significant refers to the anxiety’s intensity; it is often disproportionate to the trigger. The person experiencing the symptoms would be the first to admit that their fear is unreasonable.
Persistent refers to the chronicity of the symptoms. Social anxiety reactions are recurring; they will keep bothering the individual unless the right intervention takes place. The symptoms can recur when the individual is faced once again with the same situation, or if they start thinking about potential social interactions.
Individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder are known to struggle with other types of anxiety as well.
What are its signs & symptoms?
Symptoms of SAD vary from person to person. Some suffer primarily physical stress reactions, others primarily mental or emotional ones. There are also those who experience all three reactions: physical, mental and emotional.
Physical anxiety reactions include trembling of the hands, palpitation, hyperventilation and excessive sweating. Severe cases of Social Anxiety Disorder may even result in a heart attack or persistent gastro-intestinal disorders. Emotional and mental symptoms include difficulty concentrating, the feeling of being trapped, obsessive thoughts and depression.
How do people develop Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social Anxiety Disorder is both a genetic and a learned condition.
Recent studies reveal that anxiety disorders run in families, suggesting that SAD may be hereditary. Whilst results of investigations are still not conclusive, it is believed that people who have imbalance in the brain chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine — our natural mood regulators — tend to suffer anxiety symptoms more than those whose bodies naturally produce them. Imbalance in brain chemicals is a genetic condition.
In other times, social anxiety is a learned response. It can be a result of a traumatic event involving social interactions that a person has difficulty processing. For example, being embarrassed before a crowd can be traumatic for a person and may result in a phobia of crowds. Having a verbally abusive parent can also set the groundwork for future social anxiety disorders.
Social anxiety can also be caused by an upbringing that limits opportunities to interact with others. When a person did not get to learn social skills growing up, it is not impossible that they would find social interactions emotionally threatening.
Is there treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder?
The good news is the prognosis for Social Anxiety Disorder is very positive. In fact, there are many natural and do-it-yourself treatments for this condition that have been found effective. These include proper diet, stress management exercises and self-talk.
In the clinical setting, cognitive-behavioral interventions have been found to be the most effective against social anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral techniques involve identifying self-defeating ways of thinking and behaving, and replacing them with functional ones. Psychoanalytic techniques, which involve surfacing unconscious causes of social anxiety, have also been found to be effective.