Social anxiety is a common psychological problem, but it is not well understood by the general public and even by some professionals. People who experience social anxiety feel as though they are being judged and evaluated when they are in social and performance situations. Although they know that the anxiety and fear that they feel is unwarranted, controlling or preventing the anxiety seems impossible.
If you always experience social anxiety when you are around other people, it can become very difficult to ever relax and be yourself around others. When it feels like everyone is evaluative, critical and judgmental, it sometimes seems easier just to avoid social situations altogether. Often people who experience severe social anxiety believe that they are the only people in the world with the problem, and they do not tell anyone.
If you believe that you may be experiencing social anxiety, this article will help you to decode some of the myths about this type of fear and make a decision about getting help for your problem.
Myth #1: Social anxiety isn't that common
Fact: Social anxiety is experienced by most people at some point in their lives. Whether it was during a speech that they gave in high school, or when going for their first job interview, everyone gets butterflies once in a while. Of those people, some will experience a more extreme form of social anxiety. It is estimated that between 2% and 13% of the population experience extreme social anxiety to the point that it would be considered social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Myth #2: Social anxiety only refers to public speaking fears
Fact: Social anxiety refers to anxiety and fear in a variety of social and performance situations. These may include formal events, such as public speaking and performing; informal speaking and interaction, such as meeting strangers or going to a party; difficult situations, such as expressing disagreement; and everyday events, such as eating in front of others. The common thread among each of these triggers is that there is the potential of being evaluated.
Myth #3: Social anxiety just means that you feel nervous
Fact: Social anxiety brings with it a collection of symptoms, only one of which is a feeling of nervousness. If you suffer with social anxiety you will experience cognitive (thinking) problems, somatic (physical) problems, behavioral problems and affective (emotional) problems. For example, when meeting a stranger for the first time you might think to yourself, "She must be able to tell that I'm a poor conversationalist." Your hands might start to shake, you may feel like escaping the situation, and even feel hopeless about ever doing well socially.
Myth #4: Social anxiety and shyness are the same thing
Fact: Although social anxiety and shyness are very similar, they are not the same thing. Social anxiety involves feelings of fear about social or performance situations, but it does not necessarily involve the avoidance of, or withdrawl from, these situations. Some people may appear to be very outgoing; but on the inside they are terribly anxious and simply very good at hiding their feelings. In contrast, those who are shy tend to withdraw from or avoid social contact because of feelings of social anxiety. People who are shy always experience social anxiety, but those with social anxiety may not always act shy.
Myth #5: Social anxiety is a problem that you just have to learn to live with
Fact: Some people experience such terrible social anxiety on a daily basis that they can't work or even leave the house. Others function well in general but have a specific fear that gets in the way of achieving goals, such as a fear of public speaking. Neither situation is hopeless or something that has to be "lived with." With effective treatment such as medication or cognitive-behavioral therapy, everyone has the potential to live life without social fears.
Leary M, Kowalski R. Social Anxiety. New York: Guilford; 1997.
Social Anxiety Institute. What is Social Anxiety. Accessed May 24, 2009.