Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder involves an intense fear of becoming humiliated in social situations, specifically of embarrassing yourself in front of other people. It often runs in families and may be accompanied by depression or alcoholism. Social Anxiety Disorder often begins around early adolescence or even younger.

If you suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, you tend to think that other people are very competent in public and that you are not. Small mistakes you make may seem to you much more exaggerated than they really are. Blushing itself may seem painfully embarrassing, and you feel as though all eyes are focused on you. You may be afraid of being with people other than those closest to you. Or your fear may be more specific, such as feeling anxious about giving a speech, talking to a boss or other authority figure, or dating. The most common situation that produces social anxiety is a fear of public speaking. Sometimes Social Anxiety Disorder involves a general fear of social situations such as parties. More rarely it may involve a fear of using a public restroom, eating out, talking on the phone, or writing in the presence of other people, such as when signing a check.

Although this disorder is often thought of as shyness, the two are not the same. Shy people can be very uneasy around others, but they don’t experience the extreme anxiety in anticipating a social situation, and they don’t necessarily avoid circumstances that make them feel self-conscious. In contrast, people with social anxiety aren’t necessarily shy at all. They can be completely at ease with people most of the time, but particular situations, such as walking down an aisle in public or making a speech, can give them intense anxiety. Social Anxiety Disorder disrupts normal life, and interferes with career or social relationships. For example, a worker can turn down a job promotion because he can’t give public presentations. The dread of a social event can begin weeks in advance, and symptoms can be quite debilitating.

People with Social Anxiety Disorder are aware that their feelings are irrational. Still, they experience a great deal of dread before facing the feared situation, and they may go out of their way to avoid it. Even if they manage to confront what they fear, they usually feel very anxious beforehand and are intensely uncomfortable throughout. Afterwards, the unpleasant feelings may linger, as they worry about how they may have been judged or what others may have thought or observed about them.


Social Anxiety Disorder is a very prevalent and debilitating disorder with public speaking anxiety being the most common fear among socially phobic individuals. Recent surveys indicate that Social Anxiety Disorder is the third most common mental disorder in the population after depression and alcohol abuse. It affects approximately 13% of people at some point in their lives. Some individuals report an onset of their social anxiety in early childhood or their mid-teens, while others seem to develop the disorder after a stressful or humiliating experience. The disorder often follows a chronic course, and results in substantial impairments in vocational and social functioning.

Fortunately, effective psychological treatments are available to those who are suffering from this debilitating disorder. One of these interventions is group cognitive behavior therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder. This treatment focuses on changing the patient’s anxiety-provoking beliefs related to social situations.

The Social Anxiety Program is directed by Stefan G. Hofmann, Professor at the Boston University Department of Psychology. If you are interested in participating in this treatment program, please contact the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University at (617) 353-9610, or email You have just taken the first step in overcoming your social anxiety. Don’t wait, call now!


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, NIH Publication No. 95-3879 (1995).

Some information courtesy of Mental Health Net (1999)