Social anxiety/social phobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by a significant fear
of social interactions and interactions with other people which bring about feelings of “self-consciousness, judgment, evaluation, and criticism”1 by those they interact with. In other words, “the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations.”2 What social anxiety is NOT is simple shyness, but rather a more deeply internalized anxiety disorder. Recently, the National Institute of Health analyzed data gleaned from a study done by the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A S), which surveyed more than 10,000 adolescents (ages 13-18). The survey involved a structured, diagnostic interview, assessing a “broad range of mental health disorders.” Those who met all eight “lifetime DSM-IV criteria for social phobia, including one or more social fears, were classified as having social phobia, regardless of shyness.”3
Results of this survey are interesting:
- Overall, 43% of males and 51% of females rated themselves as shy, but only 12% of these youth met criteria for social phobia.
- 5% of youth who did not rate themselves as shy met social phobia criteria.
- Prevalence of social phobia increased with age:
- 6.3% of 13- 14-year-olds
- 9.6% of 15- 16-year-olds
- 10.4% of 17- 18-year-olds
Compared to shy adolescents, those with social phobia/social anxiety were more likely to suffer from some form of an anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or addiction. Also notable were definitive issues with school, work, family relationships, and social interactions. Additionally, the statistics show “only 23% of adolescents with social phobia sought professional treatment for anxiety, and just 12% received psychiatric medication.” More than anything, what these results challenge is the perceived perception that social anxiety/social phobia is the “‘medicalization’ of a normal human emotion.”
To outsiders, someone stricken with social anxiety may seem particularly shy, quiet, or reserved, but to the individual suffering, the internal pull of panic-ridden thoughts is often unbearable. What’s interesting, however, is that when alone, one suffering from social anxiety is usually okay. A key factor in the behavior being more than “just shyness” is when the mere thought or suggestion of any social interaction coming into play brings about the emergence of internal panic. Those that suffer may experience “significant emotional distress”4 in these types of situations:
- Being introduced to other people
- Being teased or criticized
- Being the center of attention
- Being watched while doing something
- Meeting people in authority (“important people”)
- Most social encounters, particularly with strangers
- Making “small talk” at parties
- Going around the room in a circle and having to say something
Our friends and family members suffering silently need our support. It’s time we gave this disorder the attention it deserves so those suffering can find some solace and relief. It’s one more thing that requires us to remove the stigma so healing can begin.