One of the most common types of anxiety is social anxiety, also known as social phobia. People suffering from social anxiety are afraid, worried, or otherwise uncomfortable in social situations. Sometimes, it is visibly noticeable while other times it goes by unnoticed by everyone, even the person who suffers from it.
Behavioral forms of social anxiety
Some symptoms of social anxiety are, but not limited to, the following:
- Avoidance of social interactions
- Fear of public speaking / stage fright
- Performance anxiety
- Fear of attention
More concrete examples of these symptoms could be feeling uncomfortable when meeting new people, being in class and choosing not to answer the question even when you know the answer, struggling with a presentation, or avoiding social gatherings and environments where there are people in general. Some people have agoraphobia and are afraid of leaving their house.
A lot of socially anxious people become more stressed when interacting with an authority figure or when being watched or evaluated. Many feel anxious about being the center of attention or attracting any attention at all. Some even experience panic attacks when being in a crowd or a closed space involving a lot of people (church, bus, store, mall, underground station).
Many people suffering from social anxiety feel debilitated when trying to complete very regular, daily tasks like going to a bank, talking, ordering food, or making a phone call. They also struggle with feeling “foggy,” scattered, and distracted when interacting with others as they are constantly distracted by what others think about them and how to interact in the “right” way. They avoid eye contact or start to stutter, or have problems organizing their thoughts, or don’t hear what the other person is saying.
You can read more about it in my previous article titled 5 Regular Things Socially Anxious People Struggle With.
Psychological and emotional symptoms of social anxiety
There are two main types of people who suffer from social anxiety.
The first type are usually those who are described as having low self-worth, low self-esteem, and a lot of self-doubt. They struggle with chronic shame and guilt. They tend to be people-pleasers and avoid conflict. They are overly sensitive to other people’s opinions, evaluations, and judgements.
The second type are often not even regarded as being afraid of people because they appear confident, outgoing, well-spoken, even charismatic (the narcissistic type). But when you talk to them openly or if you observe them more carefully, it’s clear that they really care about what others think of them. They feel very insecure, they don’t really like interacting with people, and so on.
In other words, they wear a mask as a defense mechanism from all the unresolved and, oftentimes, unidentified insecurities. So, while the first category of people tends to cope with it by being more avoidant and submissive, those from the second category are more aggressive and antisocial. They may put others down, seek power and status, constantly try to prove themselves, etc.
The origins of and mechanism behind social anxiety
For the most part, social anxiety develops as an adaptation to stressful and hurtful social childhood environments.
When a child is small, their whole world consists of their primary caregivers (mother, father, family members, other authority figures). This world slowly expands as they get older, but how people understand social interactions is set. In other words, the examples we are exposed to as children creates blueprints for our future relationships.
Sadly, most if not all of us are traumatized as children to one degree or another. The degree to which we were hurt is the degree to which we will have interpersonal problems. One of the most common interpersonal problems is, indeed, social anxiety.
Hurt and mistreated children grow up into adults who feel disappointed, distrustful, overly trustful, bitter, angry, clingy, stressed, numb, or emotionally unavailable in relationships and interactions with others. They have been programmed to feel like that by how they were treated when they were small, helpless, impressionable, and dependent. Back then, acceptance and validation were vital.
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“Childhood trauma leads children to become more afraid of the world. When a child’s first and most important bonds are unstable, it is natural and expected that in adulthood they will transfer this lack of a sense of safety and security onto others.”
Unresolved pain that stems from early relationships can haunt us for the rest of our lives. Early hurt and pain can program us to feel and believe that, generally, people are dangerous. They will hurt us, laugh at us, use and abuse us, punish us, hate us, want us dead, or even kill us. It can be understood as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD or C-PTSD) where the trigger is people and social situations because in the past they were a great source of pain.
Summary and final words
Most people, and maybe even everyone, suffer from some symptoms of social anxiety. Some forms are more severe, like isolation or panic attacks, whereas others are more “normal,” like fear of public speaking or feeling stressed when talking to someone. And while some of the symptoms may appear more “normal,” even the milder ones can make a person’s day to day life difficult because most things we do involve people.
Managing social anxiety expends a lot of energy and feels extremely draining. That’s why socially anxious people often struggle with depression, too. It can be very debilitating to live with it, but it is indeed possible to overcome it or learn to deal with it better.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.