What is a social anxiety disorder?

Feeling anxious about unfamiliar social situations is normal. For example, many people feel nervous and uneasy before public speaking or attending a strange social setting (think of a party where you don’t know anyone or a work networking event). Feeling worried and tense is not pleasant, but those feelings usually pass by the time the situation ended.

For people with social anxiety, however, those negative feelings may not go away easily. They may start to go to considerable lengths to avoid particular situations because they are so worried, or they may even have physical symptoms like trembling, sweating, upset stomach, nausea, and a racing heartbeat.

Social anxiety can also start to affect personal relationships, disrupt working life, and affect daily activities.

A number of factors can lie behind the underlying cause of an individual’s social anxiety. Even though everyone is different, the good news is that you can get help.


Identifying social anxiety

According to the DSM-5 (diagnostic manual for mental disorders), social anxiety is defined as a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others. The person fears that they will act in a way that will be embarrassing and humiliating.

Social anxiety is also known as social phobia and it’s more than just being shy. Social anxiety results in the person avoiding situations even though they know their fear is unreasonable. The anxiety and avoidance will typically last for six months or longer.

A person with a social anxiety disorder has a persistent and an intense anxiety that prevents them from living their normal life. The fear can start to interfere with work, school and relationships.


What can cause social anxiety?

Like other anxiety disorders, there may be a number of causes. It can be a combination of genetics, environment, thinking style, physical health, and stressful events. It is estimated that 10% of Australians may develop social anxiety during their lifetime, with 4.7% experiencing it in a 12-month period[1].


Social anxiety symptoms

Common symptoms of social anxiety can include:

  • Excessive perspiration
  • Trembling
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Blushing
  • Upset stomach
  • Feeling tense
  • Feelings of self-doubt
  • Difficulty speaking – stammering, trouble concentrating, speaking too softly
  • An urge to run away from the situation
  • Realising that your feelings are irrational.


Treating social anxiety

The Australian Psychological Society recommends what is known as cognitive behaviour therapy (a type of talk therapy) as the most effective treatment. This therapy helps a person to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that can contribute to anxiety.

You can also try stress management, relaxation, and meditation techniques. This can be part of your therapy and may help to make your treatment more effective.

Making changes to your lifestyle, like reducing or avoiding caffeine and alcohol, regularly getting a good night’s sleep, and increasing physical activity, can all help to lower anxiety and help towards recovery.


Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online social and mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.


 [1] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.