Updated: Aug 24, 2022
As a society we are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of mental health, we are learning more about how anxiety can affect us. Social anxiety disorder is one such condition which affects people on a day to day basis, interfering with normal life and is almost always present in particular social settings.
Social anxiety is often characterised as fear of social situations. However, scientists believe that this generalisation glazes over a key trait of the disorder. Central to the anxiety felt by sufferers is the fear of being judged by others, the fear that their actions or words may be received, interpreted or negatively affect someone’s opinion of them. The intense worry that this judgement is taking place at any given social interaction fuels the cycle of anxiety, despite the fact that they may not know whether there is any judgement being cast or not. It is this factor which sets social anxiety disorder apart from agoraphobia - the act of avoiding public places for fear that they may not be able to escape if something happens. Both involve social spaces, but the fears are totally different.
So, if the fear of being judged negatively by others is a more accurate definition of social anxiety disorder, when might that present itself for sufferers? Try the free social anxiety test and get free actionable tips customised for your severity level. Unfortunately, there are so many instances that they may feel the likelihood of being judged, which others may not even consider an issue. Of course there is the idea of delivering a presentation at work or school, or a speech at a wedding or event, but there is also the mere possibility that being out and about will lead to meeting new people, these can bring about high levels of anxiety.
Often social anxiety stems from specific social situations, and the level of distress induced from these will, of course, vary from person to person. But the symptoms felt or displayed are often similar, such as blushing, trembling and mumbled speech. What's more, social anxiety disorder is considered an egodystonic condition, which means that the sufferer understands that they have a level of anxiety which is unwarranted. But this can lead to even more anxiety, because they are concerned that others will identify that they are stressed and that will, in turn, lead to judgements being made about them. And so it becomes a cycle.
In terms of its effects on others, it can place an immense pressure on relationships, particularly since it is a persistent disorder, commonly influencing behaviours for more than 6 months. It will impact individual routines and, in a family setting, those daily activities may be affected in a greater way. As such, the stress placed on families can have a lasting impact, say researchers.
When it comes to the cause of social anxiety disorder, there isn’t any definitive research to pinpoint exactly what is bringing it about. There are, however, suggestions that genetics (having a close relative who may suffer from social anxiety) and the environment within which we live or were brought up can have an impact on the likelihood of experiencing social anxiety. Examples of childhood exposure to disruptive events such as regular moving of homes, neglect and even abuse are cited as such environmental factors.
To get a sense of perspective of how it may feel to suffer from social anxiety, let's consider how you might feel on the first day of a new job. Nerves are high, you are anxious to make a positive impression and take in all the information that is communicated to you. Naturally, over time, those feelings diminish as you grow used to the routine and requirements of the job and develop relationships with co-workers. However, for many people, in particular those with social anxiety, the heightened level of nervousness and worry felt on the first day may never dissipate - that level of anxiety is the normal level for all interactions. Imagine feeling like that towards social situations, day after day, without reprieve.
For many of us, we may never truly appreciate the levels of stress and anxiety that sufferers feel every day, or in a given situation. But being aware and informed is an important responsibility, alongside being supportive in ways that individuals will be receptive to. Crucially, that will differ from person to person.