Social anxiety is a psychological condition that can cause fear in a range of social situations. The sufferer may freeze up, find it difficult to speak, or experience rapid heartbeat.
In very serious cases, social anxiety can cause debilitating panic.
Social anxiety is difficult to untangle because it is self-reinforcing. Intense nervousness or self-consciousness interfere with the ability to learn from a social situation and see that it “wasn't that bad.”
In time, a child, teen, or even an adult might come to decide social situations are too painful or scary to be “worth it.” This severely limits a teen's ability to learn from and collaborate with others.
What Goes Through the Mind of a Teen with Social Anxiety?
There are some social situations many people find nerve-wracking: For example, giving a presentation. Adults know there's no danger and the event is soon over, but many actively avoid speaking in public.
Why? The reason is similar to why some teens develop social anxiety.
Although there's no physical threat, people can associate social situations with danger to their reputation. Worry about being judged harshly or embarrassed can trigger the “fight-or-flight” reaction.
Adults more easily overcome this because they have the benefit of experience and know a mistake won't “ruin their lives.” They also have healthy coping strategies to manage emotions. Young people need time and resources to cultivate these inner strengths.
When teens feel ready to “fight or flee” in more and more situations, social anxiety develops.
For a social anxiety sufferer, certain situations act as triggers that set off a cascade of near-instant reactions.
If a teen is placed in a social situation like one that was negative before, anxiety usually starts with self-criticism: “I'm going to screw up again.” This takes the teen's focus off the present, making it harder to learn new ways of being.
Teens in this state are more likely to interpret physical signs of anxiety – like sweaty palms – as deeply threatening. The feedback loop between physical and mental symptoms can become so severe, the sufferer hyperventilates or even passes out.
Some situations that can be hard for social anxiety sufferers include:
- Public speaking
- Meeting new people
- Speaking to teachers or bosses
- Using public restroom facilities
- Ordering food or eating in restaurants
- Going to parties or going out on dates