Standing against the wall at a party, making friends with the pet… replaying conversations in your head over and over and over, questioning whether you should have said that comment… wanting to strike up a conversation with someone but not sure where to start…? We may all be able to relate to these experiences. Yet for people with clinical social anxiety, these experiences are persistent and intense and can get in the way of living life to the fullest potential.

Most of us have a natural fear of being judged or criticized. Many of us get overwhelmed at times in social settings. And making new friends and forming relationships is not easy! But how do we know when someone is experiencing a typical human experience – shyness, introversion – or when they may be suffering from clinical social anxiety? Let’s take a look.

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a medical condition. The key characteristics include intense, persistent fear of being watched or judged by other people. This fear is so intense that it can affect work and/or school and daily activities of an individual. Social anxiety has three subtypes: the fear of being judged, the fear of being embarrassed, and the fear of being criticized or rejected.

People who suffer from social anxiety disorder often work to protect themselves against these fears by creating a wall of protection. If someone is afraid of being judged, they may attempt to disappear so as not to be noticed at all. If one is afraid of being rejected, they may not try to make connections with new people. Often these coping strategies can lead to further anxiety, as they may compare themselves to others who are out doing things in the world or making friends and wonder why they can’t do that.

Social anxiety often bubbles up in adolescence, when issues of identity, puberty, social norms and developmental changes are all colliding. During this time, some teens begin to develop (or expand on) fears of judgement, embarrassment or rejection.

The brain of a person experiencing social anxiety may hold some answers. The brain’s alarm system – the amygdala – is triggered when we encounter any perceived threat. For most of us, the amygdala could be triggered by someone looking at us in a judgmental way. However, for someone without social anxiety, the prefrontal cortex – the reasoning and logical part of the brain – then kicks in. It might tell the brain that, in fact, that person just happens to be looking in my direction. The amygdala calms down, life returns to normal. In the brain of a person with social anxiety, that amygdala may sound the alarm, but the brakes (the prefrontal cortex) may not kick in the first time around. It can take that brain a little longer to not be triggered or alarmed, meaning that person may feel the sting of judgement longer and even, often, unwarranted.

Understanding that the brain is working to protect an individual from danger can be very enlightening and can make people who suffer from clinical anxiety feel a sense of relief. It’s not a character flaw, it’s your brain working to keep you safe.

Treatment for people who suffer from clinical anxiety can be very powerful. First, understanding the mechanism of the protective brain can be eye-opening. Then working to understand and manage social situations that cause anxiety, and finally learning and practicing social skills can ultimately allow a person to work past their anxiety and live life to the fullest.

If you’re unsure about yourself or someone you love suffering from social anxiety, the first step is often to a medical provider, such as a pediatrician or primary care physician. They can often rule out anything medical that may be going on and help refer you to a licensed mental health professional if needed. Most importantly, know that you are not alone. Social anxiety disorder can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to last forever. No one should have to suffer through it; there are incredible treatment opportunities that can help anyone struggling to live their fullest, richest life.

To learn more about helping children with anxiety, check out our podcast, The Growing Brain, episodes 17 and 18, Helping Parents Manage Anxiety In Children, Part One and Part Two. (No time to listen? No problem! Transcripts of each episode are available on the episode page.)

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