Have you ever wondered what causes social anxiety? What makes one person shy and uncomfortable in social situations, and another person outgoing and thrive in social settings? Scientists have been asking that question for quite some time, and like most psychological conditions, there is not one clear answer. Instead, research suggests that social anxiety is likely caused by a complex interaction of environmental factors and biology.
Several factors have been studied and shown to contribute to the development of social phobia, including:
Those who have parents or siblings with social anxiety are more likely to develop social anxiety themselves; however it is unclear whether this relationship is primarily due to genetics or experiences during childhood upbringing.
Although there is no single gene found to be responsible for the development of social anxiety, two main findings have indicated that the origins of social anxiety have a genetic component:
- Psychologists have conducted twin studies and found that if one twin exhibits symptoms of social anxiety, the other twin is likely to have these traits as well, including the fear of being negatively evaluated and avoidance behaviors.
- Professor Kagan at Harvard studied a cohort of babies into adulthood and found that infants who exhibited symptoms of discomfort with the unfamiliar were more likely to be diagnosed with social anxiety in adolescence.
- During upbringing, a lot of learning happens. During this time, a child can learn to be socially anxious by watching how their parents handle social situations. In addition, socially anxious parents can encourage avoidance behaviors by providing an excuse for their son or daughter to stay home instead of go to a party.
- There may be an association between social phobia and parents who are either protective, controlling, abusive, or neglectful. These early experiences have a powerful influence on how one views themselves and others—which can include feelings of worthlessness, or low self-esteem.
Sometimes particular experiences can trigger the development of social anxiety. One way this can happen is by encountering a particularly humiliating or stressful event that can cause a person to feel socially anxious in that specific setting going forward. For example, many individuals with an intense fear of public speaking remember a specific incident where they experienced a huge rush of anxiety symptoms (sometimes a panic attack) while delivering a speech.
New social or work demands can also bring up a lot of anxiety; this can include getting a job where new demands – such as networking or meeting new people – are a requirement.
Other situations that make a person feel “different” from others can lead to social discomfort; for example, stuttering, perceived physical abnormalities, or cultural or class differences can increase levels of self-consciousness in some people.
By looking at the brain in neuroimaging and neurochemical studies, several structures seem to be key players in developing a risk for social anxiety.
Brain scans have shown that a region of the brain that is often implicated in fear and mood regulation – called the amygdala – shows increased activity and blood flow when people with social anxiety are in a social situation . The amygdala is kind of like a relay station for your brain – it receives sensory input and assigns it emotional meaning. When this structure is overactive or dysregulated, it can signal to the rest of the brain and body that danger is present—even if there is no logical threat. So, a genetic predisposition to an overzealous amygdala may be the culprit behind your social anxiety.
Magnetic resonance studies (MRIs) have pointed to an association between social anxiety and a smaller hippocampus (area of the brain that is famous for its role in memory consolidation) . The hippocampus can transcribe threatening or traumatic events into memory. It is important to note that it is unclear whether the experience of stress and anxiety causes the hippocampus to shrink, or if a pre-existing small hippocampus is a predisposition for the development of anxiety disorders, such as social phobia.
What you can do if you have social anxiety
Understanding what factors cause social anxiety can help you begin to identify some of the origins of your anxious thoughts. If you are still unsure if you have social anxiety, you can talk to a mental health provider about your concerns or take an online quiz called the Social Phobia Inventory Assessment. The good news is that social anxiety, as well as many other anxiety disorders, is being successfully treated today with research-based therapy. In particular, evidence shows that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for social anxiety, and it works regardless of how you developed your social anxiety. For example, studies have shown CBT can reduce overactivity in the amygdalar region for people with anxiety. There are many options for receiving CBT; you can see a therapist for example, or Joyable offers an online CBT program you can do from the comfort of your home.
Nadine is a Client Coach at Joyable who is passionate about guiding personal growth in others and understands the unique experience every person has to go through to achieve their goals and overcome personal obstacles. Outside of coaching–yoga, hiking, and freshly cleaned laundry are just a few of her favorite things.
- Studies related to the amygdala: Birbaumer et al, 1998; Blair et al, 2008; Etkin and Wager, 2007; Evans et al, 2008; Phan et al, 2006; Stein et al, 2002; Straube et al, 2004,2005; Veit et al, 2002; Yoon et al, 2006
- Studies related to the hippocampus: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2452391;http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2834794/