Social phobia is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by an intense fear of one or more social situations where a person feels they may be embarrassed or criticized by others. Social phobia is also commonly referred to as social anxiety disorder.
A person may have generalized social phobia or a specific social phobia. Those with generalized social phobia fear a number of social situations, whereas those with a specific social phobia fear only certain social situations. For those with specific social phobias, these fears are often related to being observed (e.g., writing, eating, working), social interaction situations (e.g., dating, parties), or performance/public speaking situations (e.g., “stage fright”, giving speeches). Some of the most commonly feared social situations include talking or giving speeches in public, eating in public, using public bathrooms, dating, and performing in front of others. While many people may feel shy or anxious in new social situations, social phobia is more extreme than normal shyness or anxiety.
Being in, or even thoughts about, a feared social situation will often lead to significant distress and anxiety symptoms, such as feelings of dread, shortness of breath, nausea, increased heart rate, dry mouth, and even panic attacks. While in the feared situations, people with social phobia may experience blushing, trembling of hands, sweating, a shaky voice, stuttering, and difficulty concentrating. The hallmark feature of social phobia is the fear of a person being publicly humiliated, embarrassed, and/or criticized. This fear is often related to being judged about their performance, but it may also be related to fears of people seeing their anxiety symptoms (e.g., blushing, stuttering, trembling). The person will often go out of their way to avoid the feared social situations. This psychological distress and avoidance can significantly interfere with a person’s normal routine, educational, occupational, and social functioning. For example, a person may avoid going to any parties where there are people they don’t know, be unable to use public restrooms, or may refuse to give talks for their job.
Celebrities who have reportedly battled with social phobia include Barbra Streisand, Dontrelle Willis, Kim Basinger, Michael Jackson, Sir Laurence Olivier, Donny Osmond, Ricky Williams, and Susie O’ Neill.
While experts do not know the exact cause of social phobia, dozens of possible theories have been put forth to explain social phobia. It is likely that a number of different factors can contribute to the development of social phobia, including biological, psychological, social, and evolutionary factors. Biological factors such as genetic heritability, imbalances of different neurotransmitters in the brain (e.g., dopamine, serotonin), and hyperactivity of certain brain areas (e.g., amygdala) are possible causes. Social and psychological factors include having an insecure or anxious attachment with one’s parents, having experienced a particularly negative social interaction (e.g., being publicly humiliated or criticized), being high in interpersonal sensitivity or general anxiety, and holding strong negative beliefs about oneself such as “I am not good enough” or “I am inept”. One evolutionary perspective explains that it is normal to be afraid of being around unfamiliar people as in our ancestral past when people lived mainly in tribes and small villages, walking up to a member of another tribe could get you captured or killed. It is likely a combination of these factors leads to the development of social phobia.
Social phobia generally develops in adolescence or early adulthood and onset is typically by age 30. The most common disorders that may also co-occur with social phobia include depression, substance abuse, and other anxiety disorders (e.g., panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder). Many people do not seek professional treatment for social phobia, which is likely partly due to the nature of the disorder where people fear social situations.
For more information on social phobias:
Glossophobia – phobia of public speaking