Social anxiety (social phobia)

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a long-lasting and intense fear of social situations. It's a common problem that usually begins during the teenage years. For some people it gets better as they get older, although for many it doesn't go away on its own.

Symptoms of social anxiety

Social anxiety is more than shyness. It's an intense fear that doesn't go away. It can affect everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life.

Many people occasionally worry about social situations. Someone with social anxiety feels overly worried before, during and after them.

You may have social anxiety if you:

  • dread everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping 
  • avoid or worry a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company, and parties
  • always worry about doing something you think is embarrassing, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent
  • find it difficult to do things when others are watching – you may feel like you're being watched and judged all the time
  • fear criticism, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
  • often have symptoms such as feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
  • have panic attacks (where you have an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, usually only for a few minutes)

Many people with social anxiety also have other mental health issues, such as depression, generalised anxiety disorder or body dysmorphic disorder.

When to get help for social anxiety

Social anxiety can be very distressing and have a big impact on your life. But there are ways to help you deal with it.

It's a good idea to see your GP if you think you have social anxiety. This is especially if it's having a big impact on your life.

It's a common problem and there are treatments that can help.

Asking for help can be difficult, but your GP will be aware that many people struggle with social anxiety.

If they think you could have social anxiety, they may try to help you with treatment or suggesting ways you can manage your anxiety.

If your symptoms do not improve, or if your symptoms are severe, you'll be referred to a mental health specialist to have a full assessment and talk about treatments.

How you can overcome social anxiety

Social anxiety can be difficult to deal with, but there are things you can try yourself. There are also several effective treatments and support groups that can help you.

Things you can try

Self-help probably won't cure your social anxiety. But it may reduce it and you might find it a useful first step before trying other treatments.

The following tips may help:

  • try to understand more about your anxiety – think about what goes through your mind and how you behave in certain social situations to help you get a clearer idea of the problems you want to tackle
  • replace your unrealistic beliefs with more rational ones – for example, if you feel a social situation went badly, think if there are any facts to support this or if you're just assuming the worst
  • don't think too much about how others see you – pay attention to other people instead and remember that your anxiety symptoms aren't as obvious as you might think
  • begin to do activities that you would normally avoid – this can be tough at first, so begin with small targets and work towards more feared activities gradually

You may find it useful to read an NHS self-help guide for social anxiety for more detail.

Treatments for social anxiety

A number of treatments are also available for social anxiety.

The main options are:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with a therapist – therapy that helps you identify negative thought patterns and behaviours, and change them
  • supported self-help CBT 
  • antidepressant medication
  • psychotherapy – therapy that involves talking to a therapist about how your past influences what happens in the present and the choices you make

CBT is generally considered one of the best treatments. Other treatments may help if it doesn't work or you don't want to try it. Some people need to try a combination of treatments.

Social anxiety in children

Social anxiety can also affect children.

Signs of social anxiety in a child include:

  • crying more than usual
  • having frequent tantrums
  • avoiding interaction with other children and adults
  • fear of going to school or taking part in classroom activities, school performances and social events
  • not asking for help at school
  • being very reliant on their parents or carer

Speak to your GP if you're worried about your child. Treatments for social anxiety in children are similar to those for teenagers and adults, although medication isn't normally used.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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