Prevalence of Social Anxiety
(This is a guest post written by psychotherapist Martyna Bobek.)
How common is social anxiety, really? With the reopening of society, many of us are experiencing social anxiety. While some are experiencing worsening symptoms, others are enduring it for the first time.
The things that we used to do daily, like making small talk with co-workers, seeing old friends, hanging out with large groups of people, or meeting new people, have become incredibly anxiety-provoking.
This article explores how the pandemic has caused social anxiety to increase, what defines social anxiety, and a few things you should know about.
The Role of the Pandemic on Social Anxiety
Since the COVID shutdowns, research has shown that social anxiety symptoms have increased significantly. Maybe you feel like you forgot how to act around other people or find that conversations that used to flow easily are now more draining than enjoyable.
With the advice we’ve been given throughout the last year to stay home and avoid contact with the outside world as much as possible, the now added pressure of hurrying back to “normal” may leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Just as the pandemic was a collective experience, if there were ever a time in history where social anxiety would equal, it would be now. Rates of social anxiety, and anxiety in general, have skyrocketed. This is a reasonable expectation after avoiding social interaction for so long.
So What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder (formerly known as social phobia) is a mental health condition that can disrupt your day-to-day life and affects about 13% of the population.
The following situations can trigger a person with social anxiety disorder:
- Meeting new people
- Small talk
- Public speaking
- Performing on stage
- Being the center of attention
- Being watched while doing something
- Being teased or criticized
- Using public bathrooms
- Going on a date
- Going to a job interview
- Raising your hand in class or speaking up in a meeting
- Going to the grocery store
- Eating or drinking in front of other people
- Talking on the phone
Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder
If you occasionally get nervous in social situations, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have social anxiety. It’s normal to feel self-conscious or shy at times, but when it begins to interfere with everyday things like going to work, avoiding friends, etc., that’s when it may be a sign of social anxiety disorder.
You may logically understand that your fears are out of proportion to the actual situation. And yet, your anxiety still feels uncontrollable. Regardless of the setting, social anxiety can cause you to experience cognitive, behavioral, and physical symptoms before, during, and after these social situations.
Cognitive symptoms can include
- Worrying that others will judge you
- Extreme self-consciousness in everyday social situations
- Fear of being embarrassed or humiliated
- Thinking that others will know you’re anxious
- Dreading upcoming social events days, weeks, even months in advance
Physical symptoms can include
- Blushing or redness in the face
- Excessive sweating or hot flashes
- Shakiness or trembling
- Muscle tension
- Rapid heart rate
- Upset stomach, nausea, and lightheadedness
- Dizziness or feeling faint
Behavioral symptoms can include
- Avoidance of social activities
- Leaving social situations early
- Drinking before going to a social situation
- A need to bring someone with you wherever you go
- Staying quiet or in the background to avoid being noticed or embarrassed
Misconceptions, Facts, and the Prevalence of Social Anxiety disorder
Social anxiety is good at living in the shadows, so bringing the issue to light can only be good. Although it’s an uncomfortable experience, the increasing numbers will hopefully bring accessible solutions, options for treatment and raise awareness towards it.
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD) isn’t the same as awkwardness. Social anxiety represents many anxiety disorders and refers to someone feeling uncomfortable in situations that would require them to be, like work, school, public places, etc. Unlike awkward or uncomfortable social situations, social anxiety is better defined as an unreasonable or excessive fear.
- You are not alone. Social anxiety disorder is the third most commonly experienced mental health issue, affecting 5-7% of the population, or 15 million Americans. Throughout someone’s life, there’s a 13% chance of developing social anxiety. However, it typically begins in your childhood or teenage years.
Here are a few facts on the prevalence of SAD, according to the National Institute for Mental Health:
- Prevalence of social anxiety disorder among adults: Based on National Comorbidity Survey Replication data, the past year prevalence of social anxiety disorder in adults was higher in females (8.0%) than in males (6.1%).
- Social anxiety disorder with impairment in adults: Among adults with social anxiety disorder in the past year, an estimated 29.9% had a severe impairment, 38.8% had a moderate impairment, and 31.3% had mild impairment.
- Lifetime prevalence of social anxiety disorder among teens and adolescents: It’s estimated that 9.1% of adolescents had a social anxiety disorder, and an estimated 1.3% with severe impairment. The prevalence of SAD among adolescents was higher for females (11.2%) than males (7.0%).
- The role of biology. Your genetics-whether from your biological parents or other relatives can influence how your brain manages anxiety, fear, shyness, nerves, and stress.
- An imbalance in brain chemistry, specifically serotonin-a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood and emotions.
- An overactive amygdala-the part of your brain responsible for detecting threats and keeping you safe. People with social anxiety may be predisposed to an exaggerated fear response, causing an increase in anxiety.
- Common environmental factors. While there isn’t one single cause that exists, a few environmental factors that can contribute to your risk of developing social anxiety can include:
- Growing up with overly critical, controlling, or overprotective parents
- Being bullied as a child
- A shy, timid, or withdrawn temperament as a child
- Frequent family conflict
- Contrary to what one may think, most people with social anxiety desire to be social. This is why taking action, whether by seeking treatment with a mental health professional or utilizing self-help strategies, is essential. The desire to be social and go to large gatherings, family functions, or spend time with friends may be there, but social anxiety serves as a roadblock.
What’s the Good News?
Hopefully, increasing numbers and cases of social anxiety will come to a better understanding and respect for those who have always struggled with it. Those who never understood what it was like to live with social anxiety beforehand may now have a front-row ticket to a show they never wanted to see.
The Bottom Line
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with social anxiety in a post-pandemic world, remember to take it slowly. As the world reopens, don’t feel like you have to go to every event you’re invited to, know what your limitations are, and most importantly, be compassionate with yourself.
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- 20 Signs You Have High Functioning Social Anxiety
- What Is Social Anxiety?
- The 4 Types of Social Anxiety