Do you feel anxious when you have to speak (or do a task) in front of others? Do you feel nauseous or lightheaded when having to navigate a party? Do you spend a lot of time worrying that you’ll offend people with something you do, say, or wear? Do you try to avoid having to eat in public or use a public bathroom?
We’ve all had moments of being nervous about how others will judge us. But if this fear permeates all or most of your social interactions, you may be suffering from social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia.
Social phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, and people who suffer from it experience such intense physical and psychological symptoms that they are driven to avoid social situations altogether. And while you may be able to get through life without going to parties or other events, it’s not so easy to skip out on dating, going to school, or going to work. Even if you do find a job and a romantic partner, limiting yourself to only the most unavoidable social obligations is no fun. It’s lonely, for one, and it can lead to other mental health disorders like depression and phobias.
Social anxiety disorder usually begins between the ages of 10 and 13, and it can grow worse over time, lasting an entire lifetime if left untreated.
Symptoms of Social Phobia in Children
Some children are naturally more reserved than others. So how can you tell if your child simply enjoys being alone or is experiencing social anxiety disorder?
Since social anxiety disorder typically begins in the pre-teen or early teen years, you’ll be able to compare your child’s behavior over the years. If your child grows more and more reserved and stops doing the activities they used to enjoy, this may be a sign of social anxiety. They may have stopped doing things they need and want to do because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves.
Let’s look at some other symptoms via a few examples…
- Your child or teen loves to learn but is so fearful of being watched or judged in class that they never answer questions. They live in what seems like mortal terror of being called on in class.
- Your child or teen frequently gets stomach aches on school days, especially if they have to do something publicly, like give a speech, audition for choir, or display some physical skill in gym class.
- Your child or teen asks a lot of anxious questions about whether they’ll embarrass themselves or how they look or what people will think. They feel like everyone is looking at them–and judging them.
- Your child or teen avoids any extracurricular activities, even things you know they’d probably enjoy.
- Your child or teen does not like to speak in front of others, even in simple ways like ordering food at a restaurant or sharing “What I’m Thankful For” at an extended family Thanksgiving meal.
If your child’s anxiety is untreated, their symptoms will likely worsen as they get older.
Signs of Social Phobia in Adults
The signs of social anxiety disorder in adults are not that different from the symptoms children experience, although the consequences might be more severe. Fear of social interactions, especially with authority figures like employers and supervisors, can keep people with social anxiety from progressing in their career. It may even limit the types of jobs they apply for, or, in worst cases, keep them from working outside the home at all.
Fear of how they will be judged by others can keep people with social anxiety disorder from participating in activities they might otherwise love–like an exercise class or a softball league or community theater. In short, social anxiety can severely limit the amount of fun a person can have.
At its most basic, and most tragic, social phobia keeps people isolated, living small and controlled lives that are focused primarily on avoiding the stress of social interaction. If someone with social anxiety has a loving family and a healthy financial situation, they may go through life feeling that they are happy enough, and that nothing needs to change. And maybe that’s true–as long as nothing changes. But life is all about change, and someone with untreated social phobia lacks the resources and resilience to cope with change.
Treating Social Phobia in Children and Adults
The good news is this: social anxiety disorder is highly treatable. Talk therapy can help clients examine their fears, practice social skills in a safe space, and gain the courage to expose themselves to new situations. Group therapy can be especially helpful, as it shows clients they are not alone and allows them to grow more comfortable interacting with others. Medication may also be warranted, in combination with therapy.
At Miramont Behavioral Health in Middleton, WI, we help teens and adults who have social phobia begin their path to healing. We offer both inpatient and outpatient care from a compassionate team of professionals. Contact us today to learn more.