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Why Am I Afraid of People?

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Updated January 27, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Why Am I Afraid of People?
Answer:

If you are excessively afraid of people to the point that it interferes with your daily functioning, you might be suffering with social anxiety disorder (SAD). People with SAD are intensely afraid of social and performance situations for fear of being embarrassed, humiliated or judged negatively. The disorder is more than just ordinary shyness and requires diagnosis by a mental health professional.

What has caused you to be afraid of people? We don't know the precise reasons why some people develop this problem and others do not, but research suggests it is probably a combination of genetic factors and your environment. Scientists have found specific gene variations potentially related to social anxiety; as this area of research unfolds we will learn more about the exact causes of the disorder.

The situations in which you are afraid of people might vary if you suffer from SAD. Some people have very narrow worries, such as only being afraid of speaking in public. This is known as specific SAD and is usually less chronic and severe than generalized SAD, which involves most social and performance situations. People with SAD usually feel the worst in situations where they are the center of attention or speaking to someone in authority.

Your fear might manifest itself in a variety of symptoms, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating or shaking hands. You might not be so much afraid of people as you are afraid that others will notice your anxiety. It is a "fear of fear" cycle of panic that develops and can be hard to break free from on your own. Fortunately there are effective treatments for this problem.

SAD is best treated using a combination of medication and therapy. Selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the first choice in terms of medication treatment for SAD. When combined with talk therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), treatment success rates are very good.

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