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Written by:Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Published On: September 22, 2023

Medically reviewed by: Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

Reviewed On: September 28, 2023

Updated On: September 28, 2023


Throughout life, we’ve all felt nervous or anxious to some extent when in social settings. This can include social anxiety at work, school, events, or in public placeS. For most of us, though, the feelings are fleeting and don’t control our lives or ability to form lasting, meaningful relationships. For people who don’t have social anxiety, this type of fear is manageable. However, for those who live with one of the types of social phobia we’ll discuss here, the fear can be overwhelming and all-consuming.

From generalized social anxiety disorder to non-generalized social anxiety disorder to specific phobias, people with social anxiety can experience a range of symptoms that hinder their personal and professional lives and relationships.

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) can cause someone to lack social connections and have low self-esteem. Individuals with social anxiety disorders experience significant distress which usually leads to avoidance of social activities and interactions. Research shows a potential link between SAD and increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and suicide. There is help, though. Treatment options like therapy, medications for social anxiety, and self-help techniques have been found beneficial in helping someone learn to overcome their fears and lead more rewarding lives.

It’s not curable, but effective coping mechanisms for social anxiety do exist. Tools that can help someone manage symptoms of social anxiety include:

Before treating it, it’s crucial to understand the different types of social anxiety to ensure you’re addressing the right phobia in the most effective way possible. Recognizing the differences helps you find the targeted treatment approach that will work best for your unique needs.

Generalized Social Anxiety Disorder

Generalized social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a type of generalized anxiety disorder also known as simply “social phobia.” It’s a mental health condition that affects millions of people around the world. In the United States, an estimated 15 million people have a social anxiety disorder that causes persistent and excessive fear of social situations.

This type of social anxiety is the most severe and intense anxiety form. It’s a fear in almost all social environments. It can be debilitating, and some research suggests that generalized social anxiety disorder causes more significant impairment and often has a higher risk of comorbid — meaning existing with other — mental health conditions.

The generalized type of social anxiety disorder also has the following distinctions:

  • There’s often a family history
  • It tends to start earlier in life
  • There’s typically a more chronic and intense experience

Symptoms of generalized social anxiety disorder include:

  • Excessive self-consciousness
  • Feeling restless in anticipation of having to be in a social setting
  • Fear of humiliation
  • Avoidance of social interactions
  • Anxious thoughts about all social situations
  • Physical symptoms like sweating and rapid heartbeat

“Generalized social anxiety disorder is identified as an extreme fear in any social situation. It makes it hard for individuals afflicted to be genuine in unfamiliar situations. However, it can be present even in familiar/safe environments as well.”

Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), MS Minkyung Chung

Non-generalized Social Anxiety Disorder

People living with the non-generalized subtype of social anxiety disorder have an extreme fear in a limited number of social settings, but they don’t fear all situations. They will have one or more areas of social situations where they can comfortably interact and function.

For example, someone with non-generalized social anxiety disorder might have anxiety when meeting new people or when they have to speak publicly, but they may be able to hold down a job and interact with people at their office, maintain a healthy relationship, and even have close friendships. Symptoms usually are less severe than what people with generalized social anxiety disorder experience.

It can help to think of it like this: the main difference between generalized and non-generalized social anxiety disorder is that non-generalized is experienced in specific contexts, whereas generalized social anxiety is a pervasive sense of anxiety throughout most social settings in someone’s life.

Common situations that trigger non-generalized social anxiety:

  • Public speaking can cause anxiety in many people with non-generalized social anxiety disorder
  • Large social events may cause intense fear when someone needs to interact with new people
  • New dating scenarios can result in extreme nervousness and discomfort due to the fear of rejection or judgment from potential romantic partners

Specific Social Phobias

It’s clear that social anxiety doesn’t always mean someone fears every social interaction, situation, or setting. Specific social phobias are the most common types of social anxiety. They can include intense fear that leads to avoidance of very distinct social situations or stimuli. For example, a specific social phobia might look something like someone fearing public speaking but nothing else, or finding eating in front of people distressing but being able to interact with others in non-food settings perfectly fine.

While this subset can be less invasive and intense, people dealing with specific social phobias can find engaging in everyday activities and maintaining relationships difficult.

Some forms of specific social phobias are common for people to experience.

Fear of public speaking

Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. It’s a prevalent specific social phobia that can cause extreme nervousness, sweating, and panic attacks when someone has to speak in front of a group. It’s estimated that glossophobia might affect up to 75% of the world’s population.

Performance anxiety

Performance anxiety, or stage fright, can affect anyone who must perform in front of others. It can lead to excessive worry about making mistakes or being judged negatively. Performance anxiety can result in an inability to perform due to fear of being evaluated harshly by others.

Eating in public

Feeling self-conscious about eating in public is called deipnophobia. People with this specific phobia might worry about being scrutinized by others while dining out or fear attending events where food is served. The fear of consuming food in public settings can make “normal” experiences like having dinner with friends so intimidating that it prevents them from living their life to the fullest.

Using public restrooms

Paruresis, or the fear of using public restrooms, can cause some people to go to great lengths to avoid using bathrooms outside their homes. Their fear may stem from concerns about privacy invasion, embarrassment, or judgment from other restroom users. Paruresis is sometimes called “shy bladder syndrome.”

“Specific social anxieties or phobias are when the individual struggles with a specific environment/stimuli. Common phobias include public speaking, doing things alone, buying clothes at stores, etc. Working with a professional to work through and manage social anxieties can greatly improve daily living. Therapists use various techniques that work for the client to get the best results. Common therapies include relaxation techniques, desensitization techniques, and confidence building.”

Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), MS Minkyung Chung

Get Personalized Social Anxiety Treatment

Social anxiety can take different forms — generalized social anxiety disorder, non-generalized social anxiety disorder, and specific social phobias.

Overcoming any of the different types of social anxiety and managing anxiety symptoms can be difficult, especially if you’re trying to do it on your own. Luckily, you don’t have to do this by yourself. With the help of a Talkspace therapist, you can gain access to therapy for phobias, learning about the tools you need to take charge and move forward in your journey. Working with a therapist who understands your challenges and goals means you’ll be equipped to face any social situation confidently and easily.

Seeking appropriate treatment and support — like the types of therapy offered by Talkspace — can be the game changer you need to manage your social anxiety and overcome your fears, leading to a more fulfilling life.

See References

Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Minkyung Chung has over 10 years of experience and specializes in multicultural issues, specifically issues unique to the Asian American population. She enjoys working within the Asian American community to help reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health services and normalize the process of it. Her passion for this topic has led her to focus her research efforts in examining how to help the Asian American community.

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