What are Social Phobias? An In-Depth Look

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A Social Scenario….

Caroline is afraid to go to work tomorrow because a meeting is scheduled. Just the thought of waiting her turn to describe her current work on the project makes her nervous. She knows her coworkers will be starring at her, listening carefully to every word out of her mouth. The night drags into morning as she is unable to sleep because of her acute anxiety. At work, the meeting is finally over and Caroline begins to breathe a sigh of relief. She remembers the meeting, though, and is sure that her coworkers were laughing behind her back and criticizing her presentation. Her supervisor will be at the next meeting in two weeks. Until then, she will continually feel uneasy and think about how many times she will make mistakes in front of him. She will think about her embarrassment and humiliation over and over again.

What are social phobias?

The woman in the above scenario has social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder. Unlike people who become anxious when giving a speech or interviewing for a job, individuals with social phobia become overwhelmingly nervous and extremely self-conscious in everyday social situations. People with this disorder experience intense, persistent, and chronic fear and feel others are constantly watching and judging them, especially by people they do not know. They often worry about becoming embarrassed or humiliated as they unrealistically think others watch everything they do and listen to every word they say.

Before dreaded situations, individuals with social phobia can worry for days, weeks, or even months, and try to avoid what they do not want to do. These continuing feelings of fear and anxiety can become so intense and interfere with work, school, other daily activities, and personal relationships. People will go out of their way to avoid social situations to the degree that it limits activities and disrupts life.

Anxiety experienced by some with social phobia can be triggered by individual situations. Others experience fear so encompassing that it is felt constantly and they feel nervous around almost anyone other than family members. Some of the situations that provoke anxiety and stress in people with social phobia include:

  • Public speaking
  • Performing on stage
  • Being introduced to new people
  • Being the center of attention
  • Talking in everyday conversations
  • Being asked a question in class or in another group
  • Being criticized or teased
  • Attending social gatherings, particularly with strangers
  • Going on a date
  • Making phone calls
  • Using public restrooms
  • Taking tests
  • Eating or drinking in public
  • Speaking in a meeting

People with social phobia experience physical symptoms that go along with the feeling that everyone is watching them. These symptoms include:

  • Blushing
  • Racing heart or tight chest
  • Profuse sweating or hot flashes
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Difficulty swallowing and talking
  • Dry throat or mouth
  • Clammy hands
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Twitching
  • Muscle tension
  • Dizziness

Now that the question, “What are social phobias?” has been answered, how common are they? Social phobia affects millions of people worldwide, and is the third most common psychological problem in the United States today. Approximately 15 million American adults are affected by this disorder, which usually begins in childhood or adolescence and affects men and women equally.

As common as social phobia is, though, it is not well understood by the general public or by medical and mental health care providers. Individuals with social phobia are in fact misdiagnosed almost 90% of the time. Instead of receiving the proper diagnosis of social phobia, they are diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, panic disorder, or personality disorder. Without proper diagnosis, education, and appropriate treatment, social phobia will continue to dominate an individual’s life.


National Institute of Mental Health. (2010). Social phobia (social anxiety disorder). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/social-phobia-social-anxiety-disorder.shtml

Smith, M., Jaffe-Gill, E., & Segal, J. (2010). Social anxiety disorder and social phobia: symptoms, self-help, and treatment. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from www.helpguide.org/mental/social_anxiety_support_symptom_causes_treatment.htm