Social anxiety disorder is an anxiety-based mental health condition. People who suffer from social anxiety disorder are constantly worried about how other people will see them. They fear being negatively judged or evaluated, especially in social situations.
For example, a person who has social phobia may be reluctant to attend a work function, because he or she will be worried about doing something the other attendees will find unacceptable. The socially anxious person may think he or she will wear the wrong thing and gain others’ disapproval, or that he or she will tell a joke and no one will think it’s funny. Even saying hello to someone and being ignored (whether intentionally or not) is considered mortifying to a person with social anxiety disorder, while a person with low social anxiety would just laugh it off or be mildly embarrassed. These things happen to healthy people all the time, but it is much more difficult for a person with high social anxiety to accept small rejections and social gaffes and move on.
A study from Greece (Vassilopoulos 2008) provides some interesting information about how people with high and low levels of social anxiety deal with social situations that may involve some discomfort.
The participants were asked to imagine a variety of social situations. They were then instructed to record the thoughts they had when confronted with each situation. What did they think of first? How did they plan to deal with the scenario? More importantly, what other associations did they make when asked to visualize the social setting presented to them?
In the highly anxious individuals, the study found that there was more “mental preparation for stressful events compared to those low in social anxiety.” This indicates that socially anxious people may feel more pressured to try to think of how to respond in an anticipated social setting. Of course, over-thinking instead of simply responding naturally in a social environment is usually more likely to lead to a realization of some of the anxious person’s fears (awkward pauses, looking uncomfortable, feeling too nervous to smile or laugh with the other person or people).
The researchers also found that the people in the study with higher levels of social anxiety were more likely to focus on trying not to look nervous or avoiding interaction than trying to “[improve] their in-situation performance.” This shows us that socially healthy people may be more proactive about behaving well in social settings.
The last major finding from the study was that the socially anxious participants were more likely to remember their unsuccessful social performances, dwelling on their negative experiences and being overly critical of themselves.