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What are the Psychosocial Causes of Social Anxiety Disorder?


Updated April 29, 2014

The psychosocial causes of social anxiety disorder (SAD) include factors in the environment that influence you as you grow up. As the old saying goes, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” It is true that if one of your parents has social anxiety disorder (SAD), then you are more likely to develop the disorder yourself. Is this because you share similar gene structure or is it because you were raised in a particular way? The answer is that it is likely a combination of the two. In addition to receiving your parents’ genes, you also learn from their behavior and from what they tell you (both verbally and non-verbally) about social situations.

Environmental Factors That Can Lead to SAD

Psychologists have developed theories about how children may become socially anxious through learning. In particular, there are three ways that children may learn to become socially anxious from their environment:

  • Direct Conditioning: Did you forget your lines in the class play? Did other kids make fun of you or were you the victim of persistent teasing or bullying? While it is not a necessary trigger, exposure to an early traumatic event may have an impact on the development of social anxiety, sometimes years later.
  • Observational Learning: If you did not experience a traumatic event yourself, did you observe someone else in a traumatic social situation? For those already vulnerable to the disorder, this may have the same impact as experiencing the situation firsthand.
  • Information Transfer: Fearful and socially anxious parents unknowingly transfer verbal and non-verbal information to their children about the dangers of social situations. If your mother worries excessively about what other people think of her, chances are you have developed some of this same anxiety yourself.

Your upbringing can also impact the likelihood that you will develop SAD. You are more likely to develop the disorder if:

  • As a child you were not exposed to enough social situations and were not allowed to develop appropriate social skills.
  • One or both of your parents was rejecting, controlling, critical or overprotective. Children that do not form a proper attachment to their primary caregiver are at greater risk because they lack the ability to calm and soothe themselves when in stressful situations.

Psychological Factors That Can Lead to SAD

In addition to the environmental triggers of SAD, psychological factors are at work. If you have SAD, you will often tell yourself that you are “not good enough” in social situations. Quite often there will be a running commentary going through your mind when in feared social situations. This negative self-talk is rooted in something known as a “negative core belief”.

In the case of social anxiety, negative core beliefs are long-held negative beliefs you have about your inadequacy in social situations. These beliefs are activated when you are in a situation that you perceive as threatening. Your core beliefs cause you to experience the cognitive symptoms of SAD, such as negative thoughts, a tendency to only see your shortcomings, and an obsession with monitoring your own symptoms of anxiety.

On a positive note, because SAD is not entirely determined by your genetics, it is possible to “unlearn” some of the negative thought and behavior patterns that you have developed. The effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is based largely on the notion that psychological factors are partially to blame for maintaining the disorder.


Hales, R.E., & Yudofsky, S.C. (Eds.). (2003). The American psychiatry publishing textbook of clinical psychiatry. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric.

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