What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety or social phobia can best be described as a marked and persistent fear of one or more social situations. For example, this could include initiating conversations, attending a party with unfamiliar people, eating in public or public speaking. In my practice I have observed this in children and adults, with shyness/inhibition being one of the more obvious symptoms with kids.

Reasons People Seek Help

Common reasons adults seek therapy for social anxiety is the impact it has on their life across different settings. At work, they have difficulty asserting themselves or presenting their ideas in public. They may not want to attend a work event for fear of embarrassing themselves. Personally, they often avoid social situations, including dating, which can be a particularly stressful experience for someone with social anxiety.

Children are often brought to treatment because they are excessively shy, avoid after-school activities, do not participate in classroom discussions, and do not want to participate in school productions that have an audience.

Treatment Approaches

As with other anxiety disorders, the mode of treatment which is most effective for social anxiety is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Building a positive, trusting relationship with a client is essential for the therapy to be effective. The therapist serves as a coach to clients (children and adults) as they face situations that evoke fear and anxiety. The goals are to educate clients about anxiety, provide them with tools for coping and then systematically expose them to the feared situations.

For example, if a client avoids talking on the phone in public for fear of being judged, the therapy session would provide opportunities to practice this skill. The therapist would call the client on the phone while she is in a store and talk to her so that she would have to face her fear of being judged.

People may judge or not judge but the point is to help the client see that they can withstand whatever reactions come their way. Of course, their fears are often unrealized, and clients often comment, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought.” If you are experiencing distress related to social anxiety, please seek help from a mental health professional.