Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is a common mental disorder. As many as thirteen percent of people experience some degree of social anxiety during their lifetime. Despite the widespread nature of social phobias, the causes of social anxiety disorder remain unclear.
While social anxiety disorder causes are not fully understood, a wide range of risk factors for social phobia have been identified. The presence of social anxiety disorder risk factors does not mean an individual will necessarily develop the disorder; the presence risk factors indicates that an individual has a slightly higher chance of developing social phobia.
Age, Gender and Social Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders can strike anyone regardless of age or gender, but women tend to exhibit social anxiety symptoms more often than men.
Social anxiety disorder onset is most common in people younger than nineteen. When symptoms of social phobia develop in adulthood, the genesis of the disorder can often be traced back to childhood or adolescence.
Family History and Anxiety Disorders
Social anxiety disorder causes may have a genetic component. The risk of social phobia increases in people whose parents or siblings display social anxiety symptoms.
While a family history of social anxiety could indicate a genetic component of the disorder, it is also possible that family dynamics and attitudes towards social activities are what actually increases one’s risk of developing a social phobia.
Biology and Social Phobia
Biological factors could increase the risk of social anxiety symptoms. Brain imaging studies of social anxiety patients indicate that social phobia sufferers have an overly active amygdala. The amygdala is part of the brain that controls fear responses. In addition to an overactive amygdala, brain imaging also recorded lower than normal activity in the prefrontal cortex of patients with social anxiety disorder. The prefrontal cortex plays a role in social behavior.
Another theory suggests that an imbalance in neurotransmitters causes social anxiety. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals needed for communication between brain cells. Neurotransmitter imbalances are a suspected cause of depression as well as social anxiety. Imbalances in three neurotransmitters — dopamine, GABA and serotonin — have been identified in social phobia patients.
Environment and Social Phobia
Environmental factors can increase the risk of social phobia. People who experience negative social interactions such as bullying, teasing and rejection are thought to be more at risk of developing social phobia. The risk of social anxiety disorder increases if negative social experiences occur regularly. Traumatic events such as sexual abuse may also increase one’s social anxiety disorder risk.
Another theory speculates that people “learn” social phobias by watching the actions of others. A child might learn to be socially anxious, for instance, by watching a parent who exhibits social anxiety disorder symptoms.
Shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder
Some researchers suggest that shyness and social anxiety disorder are connected, and it’s also been proposed that children who are shy or timid may be more likely to develop social anxiety symptoms.
A similar proposal has been put forth concerning the connection between depression and people who are naturally morose or pessimistic.
Overcoming Social Anxiety Disorder
Whatever causes social anxiety disorder, the condition responds well to treatment. Social phobia is often treated with a combination of medication and therapy, much like generalized anxiety disorder. Successful social anxiety disorder treatment can rarely be accomplished without help: professional care greatly improves the chance of overcoming social anxiety disorder.