Social Phobia: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

The social phobia Is characterized by an excessive fear of relating in social situations, to be publicly humiliated or to act in public. It is estimated that it suffers up to 13% of the population at some vital moment.

This article will explain your symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatments and much more.

social phobia

It usually begins in adolescence and is usually more common in young people aged 15-29, with little training, single and low socioeconomic class.

History of social phobia

Descriptions of shyness have been appearing in the literature since 400 BC. With Hippocrates, who made this description:

"He dare not be in company for fear of being dishonored or used; Think that other men are watching him."

The first mention of the term social phobia was made at the beginning of the 20th century. Psychologists used the term"social neurosis"to describe extremely shy patients.

The idea that social phobia was a separate entity from other phobias came with the psychiatrist Isaac Marks in the 1960s.

This idea was accepted by the APA (American Psychiatric Association) And was officially included in the third edition of the DSM.

Its definition was revised in 1989 to allow its comorbidity with The avoidant personality disorder.

Symptoms of social phobia

Just because you are nervous in some social situations does not mean that you have social phobia (FS).

Many people are shy or too self-conscious and that does not cause them big problems in their daily lives.

FS if it interferes with your routine, can cause anxiety and stress, and decrease your quality of life.

For example, many people get nervous When speaking in public , Although people with FS feel worried for weeks or months before doing so or literally become paralyzed when they do.

Emotional symptoms
  • Extreme fear to be observed or judged by others.
  • Excessive anxiety in everyday social situations.
  • Intense worry for weeks or even months before a social situation.
  • Afraid that others will realize that you are nervous.
  • Fear of acting and being humiliated.
Physical symptoms
  • Fast breathing.
  • Turn red.
  • Nausea, stomach pain.
  • Chest pressure or tachycardia.
  • Trembling voice.
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Sweat.
Behavioral symptoms
  • Avoid social situations to a degree that limits your activities or interrupts your life.
  • Escape from social situations.
  • The need to always be surrounded by someone you know.
  • Drink before social situations to reduce the nerves.
In children

It is normal for a child to be shy. However, when you have FS you experience extreme discomfort when performing daily activities such as playing with other children, reading in class, talking to other adults or acting in front of others.

Stressful situations

The following situations are often stressful for people with FS:

  • Meet new people.
  • Be in the limelight.
  • Be observed when doing something.
  • Public speaking .
  • Acting in front of people.
  • Be criticized in court.
  • Talk to"important"people or authority figures.
  • Go on a date.
  • Make phone calls.
  • Use public toilets.
  • Do tests.
  • Eat or drink in public.
  • Go to parties or social events.

The following descriptions could be from people with FS:

"In any social situation I am afraid. I am anxious before leaving home and even more during the whole event. The closer I am to the social situation, the more anxious I am. My heart starts beating and I start sweating when I think about social situations."

"When I enter a room full of people, I get red and I feel as if everyone is looking at me."

"At school I was always afraid of being called, even when I knew the answers. When I had work, I hated to see my boss. I could not eat with my colleagues or go to corporate parties. I worried about being tried or being looked at, I did not want to look silly. Sometimes I could not eat or sleep for days before a meeting."

Causes of social phobia

It is currently considered an integrative model. That is, the causes that intervene in the development of social phobia are biological, psychological and social.

Scientists have yet to determine the exact causes. Studies suggest that genetics plays an important role together with environmental factors.

Usually the FS begins at a specific point in life, from which it develops.

Biological causes

It seems that by evolution, the human being is prepared to fear people who reject us, criticize or people who show anger.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors would avoid hostile rivals who could harm or kill them; Is something that actually occurs in all species.

This theory would argue that we have inherited the genes of those people who learned to move away from these signs of violence.

As early as 4 months, some babies show patterns of shyness when they cry or are agitated by social stimuli or toys.

It can inherit a tendency to be socially inhibited.

Growing up with overprotective or hypercritical parents is also associated with FS.

Psychological causes

In this factor intervenes the learning that is not in control of the events.

In addition, it can be given A panic attack Unexpected in a social situation that provokes their association to social situations.

In this case, the person would feel anxiety every time he lives a social situation similar to that which caused the anxiety attack.

You can also give real situations that produce traumas, Such as bullying in adolescence or childhood .

On the other hand, it is also influenced by the fact that parents transmit to their children the concern for the opinions of others.

Social causes

A negative social experience can make FS develop, with interpersonally sensitive people more likely to develop it.

Approximately 50% of people diagnosed with social anxiety have had a traumatic or humiliating social event.

Like direct experiences, observing or hearing about negative experiences of other people can develop the FS.

Also, FS may be triggered by the long-term effects of not fitting in or being bullied, rejected or ignored.

Cultural Influences

Attitudes towards shyness and avoidance are factors that have been related to FS.

One study found that the effects of education on the part of parents depended on culture.

American children seemed to be more likely to develop FS if their parents emphasized the importance of others' opinions or used shame as a disciplinary tactic.

However, that association was not found in Chinese children. In China shy or inhibited children are more accepted than their peers and are more likely to be considered to lead, unlike in Western countries.

Physiological mechanisms

Although the exact neuronal mechanisms have not been found, there is evidence linking FS with imbalances in some neurotransmitters and hyperactivity in some brain areas.


Sociability is closely linked to the Dopaminergic neurotransmission .

Misuse of stimulants, such as amphetamines, for Increase self-esteem And improving social performance is common.

Other neurotransmitters

Although there is little evidence of abnormality in serotonin neurotransmission, the limited efficacy of drugs affecting Levels of serotonin Can indicate the role of this neurotransmitter.

Paroxetine and sertraline are two SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) which have been confirmed by the FDA to treat social anxiety disorder. SSRIs are believed to decrease the activity of the amygdala.

There is also a growing focus on other transmitters, for example, norepinephrine and glutamate, which could be more active in social anxiety disorder, and the transmitter inhibitor GABA, which could be less active in the thalamus.

Brain Areas

The amygdala is part of the limbic system , Which is related to fear and emotional learning.

People with social anxiety have a hypersensitive amygdala in threatening social situations or hostile facial faces.

On the other hand, recent research has indicated that the anterior cingulate cortex, which is related to the experience of physical pain, also seems to be related to"social pain", for example with group rejection.


Diagnostic criteria according to DSM-IV
A) Accused and persistent fear of one or more social situations or public performances in which the subject is exposed to people who do not belong to the family or the possible evaluation by others. The individual is afraid to act in a way that is humiliating or embarrassing. Note: In children it is necessary to have demonstrated that their abilities to socially relate to their relatives are normal and have always existed and that social anxiety appears in meetings with individuals of the same age and not only in any relationship with an adult.
B) Exposure to dreaded social situations almost invariably causes an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a situational crisis of angst or more or less related to a situation. Note: In children, anxiety can be translated into crying, tantrums, inhibition or withdrawal in social situations where the attendees belong to the family frame.
C) The individual recognizes that this fear is excessive or irrational. Note: children may miss this recognition.
D) Social situations or feared public performances are avoided or experienced with intense anxiety or discomfort.
E) Avoidance behaviors, anxious anticipation, or discomfort that appear in feared public situations strongly interfere with the individual's normal routine, labor, academic, or social relationships, or produce clinically significant distress.
F) In individuals younger than 18 years the duration of the symptomatic picture should be prolonged for at least 6 months.
G) The avoidance behavior or behavior is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance or a medical illness and can not be better explained by the presence of another mental disorder.
H) If there is a medical illness or other mental disorder, the fear described in Criterion A is not related to these processes.

Specify if:

Generalized: if fears refer to most social situations.


FS shows a high degree of comorbidity (co-occurrence) with other psychiatric disorders.

In fact, one population study found that 66% of people with FS had one or more additional mental disorders.

FS often occurs Together with low self-esteem And clinical depression, perhaps due to a lack of personal relationships and long periods of social isolation.

For try Reduce anxiety And depression, people with social phobia can use alcohol or other drugs, which can lead to substance abuse.

It is estimated that one in five people with FS also suffer from alcohol dependence, although other researchers suggest that FS is unrelated, or that it is protective against problems with alcohol.

Other disorders common with FS are:

  • The Depression.
  • Anxiety disorders , Particularly the Generalized anxiety disorder .
  • Personality Avoidance Disorder .


The most effective treatments for social phobia are behavioral cognitive.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Tries to modify the thoughts and behaviors by others more adaptive.

Suitable treatments may be:

  • Group exhibition.
  • Social skills training.
  • Cognitive restructuring


It is an effective treatment in generalized social phobia. It is intended that the person to actively contact with the situations he avoids, to confront his fears and to get used to the situations until the anxiety diminishes.

Some indications for exposure sessions are:

  • Repeated and short exposure sessions.
  • Teach to take advantage of situations of daily life.
  • Accept that the behavior of others is unpredictable.
  • Explain how the problem originates and maintains.

2-Cognitive techniques

The most commonly used techniques are Beck's cognitive therapy and the Ellis's rational emotional therapy.

The goals are:

  • Gain expectations of control over behavior and events.
  • Change attention in increased activation and physical symptoms.
  • Suppress repetitive thoughts about the occurrence of the symptoms or consequences that are feared.
  • Encourage proactivity and value achievements.

3-Social skills training

If for any reason the person has not been able to Learn social skills , It will be important to establish this training.

When the person feels afraid to show physiological symptoms like turning red, tremor or sweat, they can work:

  • The paradoxical intention.
  • The Rational emotional therapy .
  • The exhibition.
  • In people with high levels of anxiety, relaxation techniques can complement the exposure well.

In people with social phobia and some personality disorder, Cognitive-behavioral therapies They will have to be longer.

Group therapy may be too fearful for some people, although it has certain advantages:

  • Encouraging confidence, rather than dependence on the therapist.
  • Allows group exhibition tasks.
  • It allows you to make a commitment publicly, which Increases motivation .
  • The person perceives that there are other people with the same problem.
  • Create social resources.
Group Therapy

Other cognitive-behavioral techniques for FS include role-playing and training in social skills, being part of group therapy.


The medication can be used to decrease the symptoms associated with FS, although it is not a cure; If the medication is stopped the symptoms reappear. Therefore, medication is most useful when taken together with therapy.

Three types of drugs are used:

  • Beta-blockers: used to decrease anxiety. They work by blocking the flow of adrenaline when you're anxious. They do not affect emotional symptoms, although they do affect physicists such as sweating or tachycardia.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the first choice as drugs. Compared with other forms of medication, there is less risk of tolerance And dependency.
  • Benzodiazepines : They act quickly although they are addictive and sedatives, reason why they are only prescribed when other drugs do not work.
  • Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (NRTIs) have been shown to be similar in effectiveness to SSRIs. Some are venlafaxine or milnacipran.

Self-help tips

Challenge Negative Thoughts

If you have FS it is very likely that Have negative thoughts And beliefs that contribute to anxiety.

You may have thoughts like:

  • "I'm going to look like a fool."
  • "I'm going to feel nervous and be humiliated."
  • "People will think I'm incompetent."
  • "I have nothing to say".

Challenging these negative thoughts for yourself or a therapy is a way to reduce FS symptoms.

First of all, identify what negative thoughts are under your fear of social situations.

Then challenge them and change them to more positive and realistic ones, with questions like:

  • Am I sure that you seem incompetent?
  • Are you sure I have nothing to say?

Here are some thought patterns that are common in FS:

  • Read the mind: assume that you know what other people are thinking and that they see you in the same negative way in which you see yourself.
  • Predicting the future: assuming that the worst will happen.
  • Catastrophic thoughts: getting things out of their real importance. For example, believe that if people notice that you are nervous it will be terrible or disastrous.
  • Customize: assume that people focus on you in a negative way.
How do you stop thinking that everyone is watching you?

To reduce self-attention, pay attention to what is going on around you, instead of looking at yourself or focusing on your anxiety symptoms:

  • Observe the people in your environment.
  • Listen to what is said, not to your thoughts.
  • Do not take all the responsibility for trying to keep the talks going, the silences are good and the other can contribute.
Control your breathing

A change in your body when you are anxious is that you begin to breathe quickly, which leads to other symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, hot flashes, tachycardia or muscle tension.

Learning to control your breathing can help reduce those symptoms. You can practice this exercise:

  • Sit comfortably and straight in a chair, leaving your body relaxed. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for four seconds. The hand of your stomach should ascend, while the hand of your chest should move very little.
  • Hold your breath for two seconds.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth for six seconds, expelling as much air as you can. The hand of your stomach should move as you exhale and your other hand should move little.
  • Continue breathing through your nose and expelling through your mouth. Focus on slow breathing in a pattern of: inhale 4 seconds, hold 2 seconds and exhale 6 seconds.
To practice relaxation techniques

In addition to deep breathing exercises, regular practice of relaxation techniques such as yoga, medicatión or progressive muscle relaxation will also help you control the symptoms of anxiety.

Visit this article to learn them .

Cover your fears

One of the most valuable things you can do to overcome the FS is Face your fears To social situations.

Avoidance causes the disorder to be maintained; Although it makes you more comfortable in the short term, prevents you from being more comfortable in social situations that you will have to face.

Avoidance prevents you from doing things you would like to do, reaching certain goals, or participating in social activities.

Follow these tips:

  • Face situations slowly: if you are afraid to speak in public do not face a room of 100 people. For example, it begins by participating in groups raising their hands. Subsequently, it begins to make activities increasingly difficult.
  • Be patient: overcoming the FS requires practice and patience. It is a gradual process and at the beginning it is normal that things do not go as well as you would like. The most important thing is to act.
  • Use the skills explained above to be relaxed.
  • Build personal relationships

The following tips are good ways to start interacting with other people:

  • Take social skills classes.
  • Participate in volunteering.
  • Work your communicative skills .
  • Join social activities such as group sports, workshops, dance...
  • Change your lifestyle.

The following tips can help you reduce your anxiety levels in social situations:

  • Avoid or Limit Caffeine: Coffee, tea or energy drinks act as stimulants that increase your anxiety symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol: or at least drink in moderation. Alcohol increases the chances of you having an anxiety attack.
  • Stop Smoking: Nicotine is a strong stimulant that leads to higher levels of anxiety.
  • Get enough sleep: when you lack sleep, you are more vulnerable to anxiety. Being rested will help you to be relaxed in social situations.


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