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Therapists explain common causes of social anxiety disorder

by Sarah Graham
Friday 31 July 2015
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"Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is a persistent fear of social situations, and anxiety about embarrassing yourself, being judged as inadequate or stupid, and being rejected," explains Registered Psychotherapist Esmee Rotmans.

"What marks social anxiety from shyness is the excessive fear, which may make you avoid any social situation that makes you anxious. Sometimes the social anxiety can lead to a panic attack at the thought of being in a feared or actual social situation. It can be very distressing and interfere with your everyday life, including at school or work," she adds.

We asked RSCPP therapists to explain some of the common causes of developing social anxiety disorder.

Traumatic or humiliating experiences

Generally social anxiety starts during teenage years. At that age, anxiety about peers' judgement is normal but tends to pass, however social anxiety can also persist into adulthood. It may be caused by a particularly humiliating experience or series of events. For example if, as a shy teenager, you were afraid of speaking up in front of others and were required to do so as part of an activity, but experienced the teacher mocking you or being highly critical, and/or peers laughing, this could ‘affirm' your feeling of uncertainty and inferiority, making you more reluctant to go through that social situation again.

Similarly, as an adult, if you are afraid of making a speech and you start having a panic attack during your speech, you'll be afraid of having another one again next time, and so you may start to avoid this situation. There may be times when your anxiety is less marked, such as if the feared situation is avoided, but it can re-emerge if you are suddenly placed in a situation like having to give a speech again.  

Registered Psychotherapist Esmee Rotmans

Some people are naturally more introverted, which makes them feel shy in social situations. However, if this is accompanied by a traumatic or humiliating experience from the past this can then trigger a sense of dread about meeting new people, or even being around family or friends, due to fears of feeling not good enough and judged. For example, if you experienced bullying when growing up, you may judge that terrifying experience as one where being around people feels frightening and overwhelming.

Registered Psychotherapist Teresa Sinani


Parents who were anxious, distant, overprotective or critical

Growing up in an overly anxious environment can also be a contributing factor. You may have had overprotective caregivers, meaning you weren't able to fully experience common social interactions and feel unequipped to know what to do or say.

Registered Psychotherapist Teresa Sinani

Other parenting styles commonly thought to contribute to someone developing social anxiety disorder are if your parent(s) were distant or not very affectionate, overly critical, or overly anxious about 'stranger danger'.


Genetic causes

Like many mental health conditions, social anxiety disorder is generally considered to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. The condition is known to run in families, so having a relative with social anxiety disorder may make you more likely to be predisposed to social anxiety yourself - although psychologists are still unsure of the exact relationship between genetic and learned behaviour.

Finding support

If you are concerned about Social Anxiety Disorder then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

Find a Therapist working with Social Anxiety Disorder

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Updated 31 July 2015