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Social Anxiety Disorder: What is it?

By: Chloe Cho, Contributing Writer

It’s normal for teenagers to feel self-conscious or embarrassed once in a while. However, if it recurs and interferes with everyday life, a teenager may actually have social anxiety disorder (SAD), one of the most common anxiety disorders in children and teenagers. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 9.4% of teenagers have SAD. Although SAD presents itself differently in every individual, all of those with the disorder have an irrational fear of being embarrassed, humiliated, or judged in social or performance situations. Like other anxiety disorders, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this fear arises from. According to Willamette University, it is probably a combination of biological and environmental factors, such as genetics, family upbringing, recent stresses, and self-esteem. Negative childhood experiences involving social situations, such as bullying, public embarrassment, or familial abuse may cause someone to develop social anxiety as well.

Unfortunately, children and teenagers with SAD are often overlooked as shy or introverted. There are thoughts that the disorder is just “part of their personality” or that they will “grow out of it.” However, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than a third of those diagnosed with SAD had had symptoms for more than 10 years, a majority of those cases beginning in adolescence. Additionally, it’s more difficult for individuals with SAD to reach out for help in fear that they would be shamed for their anxiety. General practitioners also struggle with diagnosing anxiety disorders. For example, in 2009, PTSD has been significantly under-recognized in primary care. Misdiagnosing is also common. This is an alarming issue because SAD is difficult to recover from; according to a study in 2005, only 37% of individuals with SAD recovered after 12 years. Consequently, another study found that 80% of all individuals with SAD will experience other mental disorders, such as other anxiety disorders, affective disorders like depression, and substance abuse disorders.

Living in a world that thrives on social interaction is taxing for someone with SAD. For example, in teenagers, the downfall can be seen in school performance. Children and teenagers with SAD may experience feelings of nausea, panic, and significant distress on a daily basis due to the many social interactions in school. In some cases, teenagers with SAD may skip school to avoid social situations. As they often have low self-esteem as well, this can lead to the belief that they are not good enough for school. Additionally, it is more difficult for them to reach out to their teachers, counselors, or other sources of help because they are afraid of being perceived as “too sensitive,” or because of the social stigma surrounding mental disorders. Another example of SAD’s effects on daily life is the difficulty to create and maintain friendships. According to a study in 2014, those with SAD tend to have trouble making friends and assume that the friendships they have are not genuine. This can be attributed to their low self-esteem, which can lead to the belief that they sometimes believe that their friends perceive them in a worse manner than they actually do. Consequently, there may be miscommunications on both ends of a friendship.

It is important to recognize SAD and help those who may have it. Some symptoms of SAD are shaking, blushing, and panicking for seemly no reason. If you know someone who has SAD or may suspect that they do, do not ask if they have the disorder. Many individuals with SAD also have fears of others finding out about the disorder. However, be sure to be open and honest with them and be sensitive to their experience with anxiety. Because of their impacted ability to socialize with others, SAD often leads to loneliness. A study in 2016 found that early social anxiety was a common predictor for future loneliness.

If you believe that you or someone you know has SAD, try to reach out to a trusted individual who could help. It may be difficult, but remember that mental health is just as important as physical health. Having someone to open up to will help your mental wellbeing in immeasurable ways.

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