What is social anxiety disorder - Understand the symptoms and signs

Making small talk, eating or drinking in public, meeting people, going to parties, or even going to school or work, can trigger the fight-or-flight response that is common to all types of anxiety.

Have you felt very nervous, fearful or panicked when faced with social situations or events? Have you found it hard to go about your daily life, changed your behaviour or plans as a result of this fear? If yes, you may be experiencing some of the symptoms and signs of social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia.


What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is more than just being shy. Social anxiety is an ongoing strong fear (that is out of proportion to the threat) of one or more social or performance situations, being the centre of attention, being judged, criticised, laughed at or humiliated, or showing physical signs of anxiety, even in the most ordinary, everyday of situations.

Making small talk, eating or drinking in public, meeting people, going to parties, or even going to school or work, can trigger the fight-or-flight response that is common to all types of anxiety.

Social phobia can also apply to a specific situation such as having to give a speech, dating or being watched at work.

In social phobia the need for approval is heightened and the assessment of threats is too sensitive. It often displays as feelings of inferiority, a hypersensitivity to criticism, negative evaluation, or rejection, and difficulty being assertive. People who experience the signs and symptoms of social anxiety tend to see others as judgmental and hostile and believe that there is a high personal cost to being criticised, e.g. ‘if others criticise me, then I am a failure’.


What is social anxiety disorder?

When this fear is persistent for more than six months, intense and it interferes with normal life, it may be classified as social anxiety disorder. The fear may negatively impact life choices such as study, career, hobbies and potential life partners.


What can cause social anxiety?

There’s no one, single cause of social anxiety disorder. Like other anxiety disorders, there may be a number of causes and both nature and nurture play a role. The condition often starts in childhood or adolescence. Adolescents who are shy or socially inhibited are particularly at risk. In children, overbearing or controlling parents, clingy behaviour, shyness and excessive timidity may indicate potential to experience social anxiety disorder symptoms and signs later in life.

It is estimated that 10% of Australians may develop social anxiety during their lifetime.[1]


Social anxiety disorder symptoms and signs

A diagnosis is based on having typical signs of anxiety, which cause significant distress or impairment of day-to-day functioning, and the symptoms are persistent for at least six months.

Constant, intense anxiety (fear) in social situations is the most common symptom of a social anxiety disorder, but this may present or be noticeable as:

  • Excessive perspiration, trembling or increased heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Upset stomach, nausea or diarrhoea.
  • Difficulty speaking – stammering, trouble concentrating, speaking too softly
  • An urge to run away from the situation
  • Depression
  • Alcohol Problems and / or drug dependence
  • Problems concentrating
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships
  • Reluctance to leave the house.


Social anxiety treatment

It can be particularly difficult for someone with symptoms and signs of social anxiety disorder to seek help, because seeing a mental health or support professional requires them to interact with someone. In these circumstances, telephone or web chat counselling may be an ideal first step as it offers a degree of anonymity. You can chat to MensLine counsellors by either of these methods. Give us a call!


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A final thought

There’s a great saying that goes to the heart of what people experiencing social anxiety disorder symptoms and signs need to recognise – “You would care far less about what others thought of you, if you knew how seldom they did.”


If you need someone to talk to, you can call our MensLine Australia counsellors on 1300 78 99 78, or access free video and online counselling.



[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.