What is Social Phobia?

Social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder) refers to fears and worries about situations that involve the possibility for evaluation or observation by others. The key underlying feature is a fear that other people will think badly of the sufferer. In other words, people with social phobia don’t like situations that involve other people because they are afraid that those people will think badly of them. Social phobia is an extreme form of shyness where the shyness has reached such a level that in some way it interferes with the person’s life. Social phobia is not age specific and can occur from early childhood right through to older age.

Commonly Feared Situations in Social Phobia

People with social phobia will often try to avoid situations involving interactions with others such as:

  • Meeting new people
  • Talking to people in authority (e.g., boss, teacher, police)
  • Speaking on the telephone
  • Speaking in large groups (e.g., meetings, classroom)
  • Going on dates

People with social phobia will often try to avoid doing things in front of others such as:

  • Speaking in public
  • Working while being watched
  • Eating or drinking in front of others
  • Using public restrooms

People with social phobia will also often try to avoid standing out in any way, such as:

  • Looking or acting “different” (e.g., dressing differently, getting an unusual haircut)
  • Calling attention to themselves (e.g., calling out in a crowd, flagging down a moving bus)
  • Being the first to do something

Common Beliefs in Social Phobia

As mentioned above, people with social phobia worry about what others think of them. They often think they don’t measure up. Some common thoughts include:

  • People will think I look odd
  • They will think this sounds stupid
  • They will think I don’t know what I am talking about
  • Other people will not like me
  • People will think I have bad intentions

Physical symptoms of Social Phobia

People with social phobia will have many of the usual physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g., increased heart rate and nausea). On top of these common symptoms people with social phobia will often be especially concerned with certain physical symptoms because they might be noticed by others. These include:

  • Blushing
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Having a “shaky” voice

Who is affected by Social Phobia?

In Western countries social phobia affects around 3-7% of the population in any one year, and up to 13% of the population may experience social anxiety disorder at sometime in their life. It occurs more often in women than men. However, men often seek help, perhaps because they see it as interfering more with their lives.

Social phobia can begin from a very early age (preschool), but it seems to become more common in early adolescence (around 12-13 years). Social phobia is a chronic condition that doesn’t easily change without treatment. Many adults with social phobia report being shy for as long as they can remember.

People with social phobia may also meet criteria for other anxiety disorders, as well as depression and alcohol abuse (in adults).