Individuals are social beings whose ability to interact comfortably in social situations has a major impact on the personal relationships with family and friends, education, leisure, and work. Almost every person has experienced awkwardness or anxiety in a social situation from time to time.
When a person suffers a social phobia, called social anxiety disorder, they experience extreme anxiety when exposed to social and performance related situations. Social anxiety often compels those affected to avoid social situations altogether, which can have a profound effect on their ability to function day to day.
The American Psychological Association's official manual of mental health conditions (DSM) defines social anxiety as "A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others... the avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person's normal routine."
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is classified within a group of anxiety-related conditions which also includes post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. A person with social anxiety may also experience one of these conditions, substance abuse, and/or depression.
Social anxiety disorder is the third most common psychiatric disorder, behind depression and alcoholism. Experts estimate that approximately thirteen percent of people experience social anxiety at some point in their lives.
In any 12-month period, approximately seven percent of men and nine percent of women experience social anxiety that interferes with their daily functioning. While women experience this phobia more often than men, males are more likely to experience more extreme forms of social anxiety.
Social anxiety may begin with shyness and timidity in childhood and progress into social anxiety later. Social anxiety may also begin with social exposure at puberty. While shyness is a personality trait, social anxiety is a disease with roots deeper than environmental circumstance.
Research has yet to provide a complete picture into the causes of social anxiety disorder. Many medical professionals believe that social anxiety is caused by a combination of genetics, early development, and later life experiences. Animal studies have indicated genetic causes of social anxiety.
Other studies have discovered that chemical imbalances in the area of the brain called the amygdala, believed to produce fear responses, plays an integral role in social anxiety disorder.
Observational learning and social modeling are other factors that have been linked to social anxiety.
Treatment of social anxiety often consists of behavioral and drug therapies. Cognitive-behavior therapy, which includes exposure therapy, can effectively help a person alter his reaction to anxiety in response to social stimuli.
Anti-depressants like SSRIs and MAOIs, benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers are all medications that may help treat a patient with social anxiety. There is a risk of side effects with each of these medications, one of which is worsening of social anxiety, which should be discussed in greater detail with a physician.