Most people experience some social anxiety during their life, such as when they have to give a presentation for work or a speech at someone’s party. Mild social anxiety is not usually detrimental to one’s overall quality of life.
Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, tends to be much more problematic. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America Web site defines social phobia as ” the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations.” A person who has social phobia is constantly worried about what others think of him or her. Past social interactions are scrutinized by the person over and over again, and there is a tendency to see these interactions in an overly negative way. For example, if a healthy person tells a joke and is ignored, he or she might feel some embarrassment but recover from it easily. A highly socially anxious person in the same situation, however, will think about the incident almost obsessively and feel deeply ashamed and hopeless as a result of it.
There is also a tendency of a socially anxious person to chastise him or herself very harshly after a perceived social ‘failure.’ The emphasis on negative past experiences can have an effect on how the person behaves and feels in future social situations. It can also cause the person to try to avoid social settings as often as possible.
Clearly, avoiding other people will not lead to healthy relationships and overall emotional well-being. People with social phobia have a desire to be around others, but they are so fearful of being judged that they find it difficult to relax and enjoy themselves when they are interacting with other people. They often feel a strong need for approval, which tends to make their social experiences uncomfortable despite the fact that people cannot usually tell the individual is experiencing anxiety.
In a report titled “Social Phobia symptoms across the adult lifespan” (Miloyan et al.), a group of researchers examines how social anxiety disorder changes in people as they age. They found that social phobia symptoms tend to stay the same in people regardless of how old they are. However, people with social anxiety disorder tend to feel less anxious as they age, and they do not experience social anxiety as often.
Although social anxiety symptoms tend to become less frequent after “middle age,” getting treatment is still key to living a healthy lifestyle. If you have social phobia, or if you believe that you might, you should talk to a licensed mental health professional about your symptoms and the possible treatment options available to you.