Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is a mental health condition that causes extreme fear in social settings. People with social anxiety disorder often experience an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others, and struggle with talking to people and meeting new people.
Social phobia is not to be confused with shyness, which is usually short-term and does not cause disruption to one’s life. If left untreated, social anxiety disorder can be debilitating and affect one’s ability to work, attend school and develop healthy social relationships.
Signs & symptoms of social anxiety disorder
Telltale signs of social anxiety disorder may include:
- Extremely self-conscious in everyday social situations
- Avoid meeting new people
- Minimal eye contact
- Speaking very softly
- Have trouble speaking to people at work or school
- Experiencing irrational anxiety or fear when doing everyday things like eating and drinking in front of others
- Worrying about social situations and doing everyday things for weeks before they happen
- Missing school or work because of anxiety
- Avoiding social situations altogether, including shopping, attending job interviews, asking a question, talking on the phone, eating in public and using public washrooms
People with social anxiety disorder may also experience these physical symptoms during social interactions:
- Rapid heart rate
- Clammy palms
- Feeling nauseous or sick
- Rigid body posture
Causes of social anxiety disorder
The exact cause of social anxiety disorder is unknown, but research has shown that it could be a result of biological, environmental and genetic factors. For example, a serotonin imbalance could be one of the possible reasons for social phobia. Serotonin is a critical hormone that regulates our mood and feelings of well-being. An overactive amygdala, a structure in the brain that governs fear response and feelings of anxiety, may also contribute to this disorder.
Social anxiety disorder could also be linked to a history of abuse, bullying or teasing. A child may be at a higher risk of developing social phobia if either one of his parents suffers from the disorder. In this case, there could be two types of factors at play – genetic and environmental. If you have a first-degree relative with this disorder, you may be two to six times more likely to develop the condition yourself. Children may also learn socially anxious behaviours from their parents through observation.
Some researchers also believe that misreading others’ behaviour may contribute to the disorder. For example, thinking that people are frowning and staring at you when they’re not.
What to do if you think you have social anxiety disorder
If you are experiencing telltale symptoms of social phobia, consult your doctor immediately. There is currently no medical test available to diagnose social anxiety disorder, but your doctor will get you to describe your symptoms and situations that cause your symptoms.
Upon diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to a mental health provider for treatment. Treatment options for social anxiety disorder include medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure therapy and group therapy.
There are also certain lifestyle adjustments that you can make to improve your condition:
- Avoid caffeine: Foods that contain caffeine, such as coffee, chocolate and soda are stimulants and may increase feelings of anxiety.
- Get plenty of sleep: Getting at least eight hours of sleep every night can help combat anxiety and alleviate symptoms of social phobia.
- Stay active: Exercising releases hormones called endorphins, which trigger feelings of happiness.
- Have a balanced diet: Research has shown that having a healthy diet provides the brain with the required nutrients to support a positive mood, enhancing overall wellbeing.
If you suspect that you have social anxiety disorder, please seek professional help immediately. Let our kind and experienced doctors at Osler Health help you overcome any mental health challenges that you may be facing.