The experience is commonly described as having physiological components (e.g., sweating, blushing), cognitive/perceptual components (e.g. belief that one may be judged negatively; looking for signs of disapproval) and behavioral components (e.g. avoiding a situation).
The essence of social anxiety has been said to be an expectation of negative evaluation by others.
One theory is that social anxiety occurs when there is motivation to make a desired impression along with doubt about having the ability to do so.
Social anxiety first occurs in infancy and is said to be a normal and necessary emotion for effective social functioning and developmental growth.
Cognitive advances and increased pressures in late childhood and early adolescence result in social anxiety being experienced repeatedly.
Adolescents have identified their most common anxieties as focused on relationships with peers that they are attracted to, peer rejection, public speaking, blushing, self-consciousness, and past behavior. Most adolescents progress through their fears and meet the developmental demands placed on them.
Forms and degrees
Forms of social anxiety include shyness, performance anxiety, public speaking anxiety, stage fright, timidness, etc., — all of them may assume clinical forms, i.e., become anxiety disorders.
The term is also commonly used in reference to experiences such as embarrassment and shame.
However some psychologists draw a line among various types of social discomfort, with the criterion for anxiety being an anticipation.
For example, the anticipation of an embarrassment is a form of social anxiety, while embarrassment itself is not.
Criteria that distinguish clinical versus nonclinical forms of social anxiety include intensity and levels of behavioral and psychosomatic disruption.
Social anxieties may also be classified according to the broadness of triggering social situations.
For example, fear of eating in public has a very narrow situational scope (eating in public), while shyness may have a wide scope (a person may be shy of doing many things in various circumstances).
Accordingly, the clinical forms may be distinguished into the general social phobia and specific social phobias.
Extreme, persistent and disabling social anxiety may be diagnosed as social anxiety disorder (social phobia).
Criteria in the DSM and ICD attempt to distinguish clinical versus nonclinical forms of social anxiety, including by intensity and levels of behavioral and psychosomatic disruption.
The clinical forms may also be distinguished into the general social phobia and specific social phobias.
Although the “official” clinical name for the disorder, as listed in the DSM and ICD, is Social Phobia or Social Anxiety Disorder, support groups for people who have the disorder (whether through clinical diagnosis or self-diagnosis) often refer to it as simply “social anxiety” or even “SA”.
The validity of the disorder diagnosis has been challenged, both on scientific and political grounds.
Many people satisfying DSM social phobia criteria may simply be temperamentally high in social anxiety rather than suffering from a disorder, although such problems in living in society may still deserve attention as a matter of social justice.
Clinicians and researchers continue to struggle with definitional problems regarding the constructs of shyness, social anxiety and social phobia (social anxiety disorder).
Each shares similarities, yet each has been used to define distinct aspects of psychological life as it relates to interpersonal functioning.
Anxiety disorder is a blanket term covering several different forms of abnormal and pathological fears and anxieties which only came under the aegis of psychiatry at the very end of the 19th Century.
Current psychiatric diagnostic criteria recognize a wide variety of anxiety disorders.
Recent surveys have found that as many as 18% of Americans may be affected by one or more of them.